Superstar musician and cultural icon Prince died on Thursday at 57, and while his influence regarding popular music, black culture and gender norms — and even how someone is named — will remain pervasive, his life on the basketball court is shrouded in historical fact and comedic legend.
Standing at 5-foot-2, Prince was an inch shorter than the NBA's tiniest player ever, 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues, but lacked Bogues' height-defying elite athleticism, of course. A mercurial personality whose image was inextricably tied to his own expression of gender-fluid black masculinity, Prince's skill as a basketball player was never mentioned even as he rose to fame in the late '70s and throughout the '80s. Who would guess that the short pop musician in heels could ball?
And for decades, nobody did. It wasn't until Charlie Murphy's infamous retelling of his experience playing a late-night pick-up game against Prince that the world became aware of his abilities on the court. In A "Chappelle's Show" skit that aired in February 2004, Murphy shared the "True Hollywood Story" of the time Prince and his crew whooped Murphy and his friends in a basketball game at Prince's house in 1985.
Chappelle played Prince in Murphy's hilarious dramatic retelling of the game, which was "a landslide victory" in Prince's favor, according to Murphy.
“This cat could ball man. He was crossing cats like Iverson. He was getting rebounds like Charles Barkley. Prince was incredible," Murphy said.
Chappelle called the victory for Prince by saying, "Game, blouses." Pick-up basketball hasn't been the same since.
Not many, however, took Murphy's story all that seriously. Would Prince really play basketball in a blouse and heels (apparently the footwear of choice for Prince on the court) against Murphy after coming back from the club, and then serve the losing team pancakes afterward, as Murphy claimed? No way, right?
Two months after the episode aired, Prince backed-up Murphy's story in a radio interview, responding "Oh definitely" after being asked if he had "game" or not.
"To be honest, it ain’t that I’m that great. [Murphy's] just so bad," he laughed.
Depending on who you ask though, Prince is either as good as Murphy says, or his game is the equivalent of a wannabe And1 Mixtape Tour player. Meaning: All flash, no buckets.
Dissenting opinions on Prince's basketball abilities have emerged in the years since Murphy first revealed the icon's affinity for hoops. And let's not question it: Prince loved basketball — so much so that he threw a private three-hour party for the Minnesota Lynx after they won the WNBA title in October 2015. He's even had some run-ins with NBA stars, like former Los Angeles Laker Carlos Boozer:
Getting back to Prince's playing days, last March, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Libor Jany found an entry in his newspaper by colleague Jon Bream on Prince's time as a youth basketball player at Bryant Junior High in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“Prince was an excellent player,” basketball coach Richard Robinson told the Star Tribune, going on to give the newspaper a short scouting report on a young Prince: Excellent ball handler, good shooter, but too short to crack the starting lineup.
"I knew he wanted to be starting and felt he should be starting. He was unhappy and expressed that many, many times," Robinson continued.
But while Robinson had plenty of positive things to say in the old Star Tribune item, he told TMZ in March 2015 that Prince "was quite a good basketball player, but I gave him less playing time because he always threw the ball away. The more turnovers he got, the less time he played."
From this, a clearer image of Prince the baller can be extrapolated: Turnover prone, but possessing a good enough jumper to take advantage of a set of wicked space-creating handles. Got it. But can anyone else besides Charlie Murphy confirm that Prince still has game?
In comes writer Touré, the author of the Prince biography I Would Die 4 U, who wrote in the book about a time he played basketball at Prince's Paisley Park estate in 1998.
Prince, who came out in sneakers, not heels, played like how Murphy and Robinson had already described: A lot of quickness in his movements, plenty of cleverness and creativity on the ball, but without the reckless passing of his middle school playing days.
"He moved like a player and played like one of those darting little guys you have to keep your eye on every second. Blink and he’s somewhere you wouldn’t expect. Lose control of your dribble for a heartbeat and he’s relieved you of the ball. He jitterbugged around the court like a sleek little lightning bug, so fast he’d leave a defender stranded and looking stupid if he weren’t careful... Prince played like a natural leader, setting picks and making smart passes, showing a discipline many street players never grasp. Then, he took it boldly to the hole, twisting through the air in between both opponents to make a layup."
Prince could really play! In fact, he fits the mold of a classic pick-up basketball hustler: Too diminutive to intimidate an opponent at first, but quite a force once the game got going. He wasn't a player to be underestimated.
“I dare you to challenge Prince to a game of ball one-on-one," Murphy cried in the 2004 sketch.
"Challenge him… You might get embarrassed.”