In the doldrums of the Pro B league’s 2020-21 season, a former NBA executive pondered a headline signing.
The league — the second tier of basketball in France — was experiencing COVID-19 turbulence, so Paris Basketball president and co-owner David Kahn reached across the Atlantic for inspiration.
The club was in its third season in the French capital, employed two youngsters with real NBA prospects and harbored hopes of getting promoted to France’s Jeep Elite division.
Kahn, the former president of basketball operations for the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, was about to sign a rapper who had never played basketball past the high school level.
“If ever there was a year where something like this should be explored, this felt like the year,” Kahn told The Post. “This is not a fun year, for anybody. … I just felt it could be a pick-me-up … for everybody associated with the club and its fans.”
Khadimou Rassoul Cheikh Fall was at a crossroads.
The highly skilled guard from John F. Kennedy High School in The Bronx had a playoff basketball game approaching. But another, bolder option loomed in the background — on the exact same day.
Fall, now more commonly known as Sheck Wes, was beginning to dip his teenage toes into the modeling world. The 17-year-old started missing practices for fittings, and was attracting interest in fashion circles.
When that interest resulted in a modeling invite for Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 3 launch in February 2016 — a raucous event at Madison Square Garden with cultural titans such as Anna Wintour in attendance — he knew he needed to put his hoop dreams on hold.
“It was so consequential, me doing that Kanye show, that my coach … he stopped playing me in practice, things like that,” Wes said of the event, at which he shared the stage with supermodel Naomi Campbell and rapper Young Thug. “And it really just made me take the next route, the other route, you know.”
But while the Harlemite began blowing up as a rapper — he eventually jointly signed to West’s GOOD Music and Travis Scott’s Cactus Jack Records under Interscope — he never strayed too far from his first love, which engulfed the projects he grew up in.
Recording sessions of his and Scott’s albums were interspersed with basketball runs. NBA stars such as Kevin Durant and Joel Embiid introduced themselves as fans, he said. Even Wes’ biggest hit, the party smash “Mo Bamba,” paid homage to a childhood friend from the same neighborhood who now plays for the Orlando Magic.
Whereas others saw a rapper who could play basketball, Wes quietly saw an ability to do both — seriously.
“This is a goal for me since I’ve been a kid … this is part of my life, my culture,” he said. “I’m from New York, I’m from a place where we care about basketball to the top of the tee. We’re the reason why the game is played how it’s played.”
There have been early morning workouts with DeMarcus Cousins and recent Nets pickup Mike James, while popular NBA trainers Chris Brickley and Chris Johnson were sometimes on hand to push the rapper as well. Even amid the sold-out shows, fashion week trips and a top-10 record, the 22-year-old “never stopped playing.”
When Wes released his music video for “Been Ballin” last November — a hoops tribute featuring a fake Adam Silver — the clip dovetailed an announcement from the rapper that he was entering the 2020 NBA Draft.
He was unsurprisingly not selected, and more recently told The Post that his draft “declaration” had not even been legitimate.
But the video, which received widespread coverage and has amassed more than 2.2 million views to date, served as another reminder of the MC’s basketball passion.
Before long, a more tangible playing option emerged.
Paris Basketball’s move to sign the rapper was set in motion after its advertising agency, YARD, initiated contact with Wes in November. Though Kahn said YARD is “deeply embedded” in the club, and is co-run by at least one former pro player, he admitted he had “no clue” whether or not Wes could play at the required level. The rapper also faced abuse allegations from an ex-girlfriend in 2019, though he faced no charges and now denies the claims. Kahn told The Post the club did its due diligence on the rapper — who was also arrested on gun and drug charges in 2020 — and felt “comfortable” joining forces.
“They wanted me to come here and push the culture, and they wanted their team to win,” Wes said.
That basketball culture unquestionably stems from Paris at large.
Described by fellow Paris player Ryan Boatright (who won an NCAA title with Connecticut in 2014) as having a more “youthful and urban” vibe than what encompasses the typical European basketball scene, there’s no escaping the fashion and hip-hop elements that are littered throughout the city.
Take a trip to Paris Basketball’s website and you’ll find not-so-subtle hints of the club’s ethos. There is a “lifestyle” tab under which you can select “music” or “fashion,” and an article buried under the latter shows two of the club’s top prospects, Ismael Kamagate and Juhann Begarin, draped in designer clothing.
Wes, who has modeled for Louis Vuitton and has a fervent Paris fan base, was always going to fit the nascent club’s vision.
“We want to be a team here that is responding to that Parisian basketball culture,” Kahn said. “And in that respect it’s very different from your typical European basketball club. We want to be a very competitive and aspirational team from a wins and losses standpoint. But we also think there’s an opportunity to have a real brand — Paris Basketball — that has resonance beyond just the basketball court.”
It would be foolish to ignore the clout that the rapper arrived with, namely his 1 million-plus Instagram followers and nearly 4.8 million monthly Spotify listeners.
Wes is aware of that appeal. But his approach in France was reminiscent of his humble Harlem roots rather than that of an opportunistic artist seeking a marketing push.
“I didn’t come here to sell my album or make it gimmicky. I came here with no chains on, I came here to just hoop. I didn’t come here to bring the whole circus to f–king Paris Basketball. I came here to hoop and play hard.”
If the rapper’s expected work ethic was ever in question, he quickly and emphatically assuaged any doubts. Kahn called him “diligent and professional,” while Boatright said he “did it the exact way you supposed to do it.”
Other concerns proved less straightforward.
Learning the playbook was a challenge early on. His sleep schedule — more attuned to tours than tip-offs — needed improvement, he said. Even with his charming personality, his approach to his new teammates required a slight tweak.
“I really said yo … you gotta come respect the game, you gotta respect the fact that these guys — you’ve been stomping on stage for the past four years, these guys have been putting in work for the past four years,” Wes said. “And they’re allowing you into their space.”
While Wes easily bonded with his teammates, things were a bit choppier with head coach Jean-Christophe Prat. The rapper joined the team in the middle of a promotion push and initially didn’t play at all, leading him to contemplate leaving at one point, he told The Post. After a heart-to-heart with Kahn, Wes eventually got some playing time and even said he “learned some things” from Prat. But it was a tough position for the 49-year-old coach to be thrust into.
“The coach understandably was a little nervous,” Kahn said. “This was not a typical coach ask of a coach. And yet our coach, Jean-Christophe Prat, understands what we’re trying to do here. And that is to build a brand that is really beyond just basketball. It starts with basketball, but it travels beyond that. He’s been wonderful to work with, and so he was open minded, too.”
As Prat focused on the team’s competitive goals, there was of course another question surrounding the new signing.
Can this guy play?
While the public didn’t get the clearest answer from his minimal time on the court, the verdict was clear to Boatright.
“He’s not trash, he can actually play ball,” said the six-year pro. “He earned that spot, he earned that deal, and he did what he did with it.”
While the rapper appeared in just three contests and scored in just one, after his May 7 arrival, Paris Basketball won 10 of its last 11 contests and achieved promotion to France’s top flight, Pro A.
For all of the pomp surrounding the chart-topper’s arrival, his most valuable asset to the club was simply being a good teammate.
He played tough defense in practice, was “super humble,” according to Boatright, and generally fit in with his less famous teammates, putting aside the ego and bravado often heard in his music.
“I wrote a note to our players before he arrived, and I pointed out to them, when you think about any venture, whether it’s a fan or a team that aspires to be great, it often times requires some risk-taking,” Kahn said. “And I felt very strongly that this was a risk well worth taking.”
On June 11, Paris Basketball wrapped up a season that included 23 wins, multiple COVID-19 pauses and a “renaissance man,” as Kahn called him, joining the roster.
But the team’s Sheck Wes era may already be over.
Kahn was unsure when asked if the rapper would remain involved with the team, and called the deal “a one-time-only thing” before walking back that claim and saying he was “hopeful” of a continued relationship.
“I would never rule out anything, I’m not that kind of a person,” Kahn said. “I’m open to hearing any further ideas, whether they’re on the court or off, as to how we can work together.”
Even if Wes never suits up for Paris again, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be too aggrieved. He brought a childhood dream to life, proved his basketball supremacy among his rapping peers — yes, that includes Quavo and J. Cole, he said — and briefly felt the pull of stardom in yet another field.
“People here didn’t want to be in the Sheck Wes highlight,” he said.
Sooner or later, the focus will of course shift back to his music, where he has paid homage to Kyrie Irving, Latrell Sprewell and his favorite, the late Kobe Bryant.
Basketball has always influenced his sound. Now, whenever Wes decides to follow up his 2018 debut “Mudboy,” his own pro voyage will fuel the other passion even more.
“This s–t make me wanna go harder in the studio,” he said.
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