The all-around game of 2 Chainz
The rapper could have ended up as just another one-hit wonder, but his community didn’t let that happen
COLLEGE PARK, Ga. – It’s only Dec. 23, but on a misty morning outside of Atlanta, it might as well already be Christmas. Dozens of kids are lined up in the North Clayton High School gym getting lessons on defensive drills.
“If you don’t know, ask, and you’ll get a demonstration,” a coach booms over the mic. “Ay, yo, guess what? It’s cool to learn. I want you all to know that.”
For the ballplayers at the annual TRU 2 Hoops tournament, there’s a lot of pride on the line. Designed for kids between 10 and 13 years old, nobody on the court is trying to get embarrassed in front of their friends and family during the holiday season. But when the pressure’s on, the short-term embarrassment of asking for help can sometimes overshadow the thirst for knowledge.
Seeing this, the coach stops the drill. With his hand raised, he demonstrates how to express oneself in a time of need. “ ‘Hey, I don’t know how to do something, teach me,’ ” he says. He emphasizes that, here, in this gym, it’s OK to ask for help.
It’s the kind of encouragement that to the naked eye might sound ridiculous, but to Black children, it’s required. Most importantly, knowing that someone on the other end won’t punish you for your lack of knowledge is the biggest confidence builder there is. Sometimes you need help, and sometimes you have to ask.
One person who learned that lesson well, at this very school, is Tauheed Epps. As a student in the ’90s, he was kicked out of school for violating its zero tolerance drug policy. He was a member of the state champion basketball team two years before and was looking at a promising college career, before he, too, needed help.
Now, he’s 2 Chainz.
So, naturally, the multiplatinum rapper who embodies wealth and opulence, as evidenced in his TV series Most Expensivest, is giving back. As he does every year. The TRU 2 Hoops tournament is his event. And this year, he’s on hand as the new part-owner of the College Park Skyhawks, the G League team that plays at the Gateway Center just nearby.
2 Chainz isn’t just some rich rapper handing out sneakers like politicians do with so many turkeys on Thanksgiving Day. He’s an actual member of a sports franchise’s ownership group. That fact alone is worth more than many people can understand in the eyes of a young Black child, a value, psychologically, worth just as much as the cost of any particular pair of shoes.
As he says on his new album, So Help Me God!, which came out last week, “Anywhere I go, I put Southside on the map.”
If you’ve listened to the man once known as Tity Boi long enough, you’re familiar with his journey. Discovered by Ludacris’ Disturbing Tha Peace label, he broke onto the scene with Playaz Circle’s smash hit “Duffle Bag Boy” featuring Lil Wayne on the hook. The organ-soaked beat sounded like the best beat your church musical director ever cooked up on their own time for the youth choir.
He could have ended up as just another one-hit wonder, but that didn’t happen. Instead, he rocketed to the top of the charts and the rest is history. To be fair, he isn’t the first artist from College Park to turn into a megastar. But his story isn’t just one of personal achievement, it’s the tale of just another kid who liked sports from a Black community that refused to give up on him.
The home of the Eagles ostensibly looks like any other high school in America. The message board out front when you pull in reads, “On time. Prepared. Respectful. Engaged.” On one wall inside the gym, a single American flag hangs. On the far side, a white banner stands out: State AA Boys Basketball Champs 1993.
Epps was a sophomore, just another kid doing what he loved, playing basketball every day. Not some thug looking to rap anyone to death metaphorically or physically, he just loved to hoop.
“He was a guy that smiled a lot. Easy to get along with, happy-go-lucky guy,” said coach James Gwyn, who was at North Clayton from 1985 to 1995. “Just a guy that wanted to be a part. He loved the structured part of basketball.”
When you hear the overarching story: kicked out of school senior year, scholarships lost, made it to Division I basketball and eventually to rap superstardom, our country’s stereotypes often point us toward an image of a ruthless go-getter who would take anyone out on the way to the top. It’s quite the opposite. Not only was he popular, he was smart and a fantastic teammate.
“Anytime I was moving, kind of dragging like, in the classroom that day, ’cause I wasn’t feeling good. He said, ‘Old lady, go sit down. I got this,’ ” Ms. Love, his college prep geometry class teacher, said of Epps. “He would actually start going over the homework and get the kids to the point where I could just get up and teach whatever I need to teach. But you want as a teacher, you want your kids to be able to deliver, redeliver what you taught. Each one teach one, and you have to take care of each other.”
It’s amazing how believing in the people around you can eventually pay dividends. As the story goes, at the beginning of his senior year, he was expelled for drugs. But his community rallied around him and wrote character references for him, giving him another shot. The big-time college basketball offers were gone, but it didn’t mean his career was over.
He ended up at Alabama State, where he learned the harsh realities of being a student-athlete, particularly one at a historically Black university. On his album, Rap or Go to the League, on which LeBron James has a credit, he raps, “Let me get this straight. If I drop 40 [points] today. You don’t care if I eat, you don’t care if I ate?” At Alabama State in the ’90s, life was not what it is now, with some coaches insisting that their players eat like kings to be able to achieve. The internet was reserved for important matters and his school was switching coaches left and right, making playing time a constant battle. But Epps made the best of it.
Decondre Lee was his teammate in college. They bonded early, and some of his best memories with Epps aren’t really about what happened when they were wearing jerseys.
“He’s a student of life. So, to be there along with him when we had those things. Moving into apartments. Didn’t have trucks, we would tie down mattresses to the top of our cars,” Lee said, speaking of what it’s like to be friends with someone who you knew was talented, long before they blew up. He spoke on how Epps made sure they could cram for tests together when they got home from team road trips. “We found the means to do it and we enjoyed it. It was fun and, man, the ride is still going and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
Lee always respected his motivation. Many celebrities, never mind rappers, tell stories about getting rich and not being able to go back to where they came from. Be it jealousy, shame, what have you, for Black folks in particular, the old trope of using basketball to “make it out the ‘hood” is a perverse one. Plenty of people are simply trying to bring good things back to their neighborhood, not just leave to never return.
“I don’t think he was that type of person that was hungry for attention,” Lee said. “So being out on the basketball court, being a part of a team was more like being part of that family.
“It’s got to be genuine. You can’t fake it, because cameras are everywhere. So if you’re a part of something and you’re doing the right thing, people will notice. They’ll see it.”
“North Ayton” is what the sign reads heading into the Eagles’ weight room. The two letters have been ripped off the door as you head into the dark, narrow passage that opens up into a cold, dingy square space with a mat logo that resembles the University of North Carolina Tar Heels’ interlocking “NC” logo. “I’m gonna have to take care of this,” Epps said, checking out the lockers and the equipment. He wants to help the school revamp the facility, which is clearly in need of an upgrade. He then proceeds to do a few pullups, reminding everyone that his form is still immaculate.
2 Chainz was always popular, but his destiny to become the kind of person who could genuinely wear both hats of a superstar and true community leader was something that took work from him and many others. His camp is not just there to give kids something to do and a chance to compete against each other; he always gives away free shoes and athletic gear. It’s also a fun scene for all. During a 2v2 single-elimination tournament, the kids name their own teams and parents are well into it.
Basketball camp is one of many ground zeros for Black culture well beyond the ball going through the hoop. Families are catching up, the DJ is playing music the whole time, the MC is keeping everyone involved and the kids are having a blast. During a break in play, 2 Chainz offers $100 to the first kid who can hit a 3-point shot and nearly causes a stampede of little legs and scrawny arms, hoping for their chance to hoist a shot they’ll never make in front of everyone.
Even the parents get involved. The impromptu moms’ 3-on-3 game was the most heated event of the day, no joke.
“He was like a pacesetter, even then,” Epps’ mother, Jeanette, recalled. “He wanted all the guys that he hung out with to further their education or some had quit school, didn’t go, he wanted them to go back. He encouraged the people in the area that he was in where he saw the need was, and they looked up to him enough to say, ‘It seems to be working for him. Why not try it?’ And he’s willing to help.”
Which is why he was such an excellent choice to be the face of the College Park Skyhawks. It’s not just to sell team shirseys with two actual chains screenprinted on the front. He shows up to games and understands the struggle of guys who haven’t yet made it to the league. And at the Gateway Center earlier this year before tipoff, he’s sitting courtside, watching his team warm up.
“He’s connected to the team,” said Shareef Abdur-Rahim, longtime NBA player, College Park native and president of the G League. “You think a lot of times everyone celebrates the instant star, the star that is the phenom, the child phenom. But a lot of times we don’t appreciate that struggle in the continual work and the perseverance of the person that starts one place and continues to evolve. And again, that’s what his career has been about in a lot of ways.”
The cruel irony of his latest endeavor is, like for many urban Black families in the Americas, the existence of the arena in College Park at all is bittersweet.
“We were living all up and down that highway. The last place we were, was where this arena was built,” Epps’ mother said. “It was just he and I, and we had some good days and some bad days. Now, there’s no history or no sign of where that place was, but we were there and we got started there, and started with the music there, that was the beginning. …
“That’s what it’s like, y’all put a runway there. We can’t even go and show the grandkids that this is where we lived.”
Weeks after the TRU 2 Hoops tournament, 2 Chainz performs a show for a radio station in Atlanta that packs a playhouse with youngsters who want to be like him on the music side. His goal is to get some shine for the younger artists on his label. It’s a lovely chaotic scene, but he seems right at ease being the center of attention.
His mama understood his mindset from the beginning.
“He lets you know that you don’t have to be a rapper or a baller to succeed or to have a good life or to become rich,” she said. “There are other things, maybe one of the albums he has now, Rap or Go to the League, you’re thinking the only way to be rich is to be a rapper or go to the league, the basketball, football league or whatever.
“The league is whatever you want to invest in and become great at.”