One Of Us? Prince, Sports And The Enduring Underdog

Prince's love of sports is an approachable channel for fans yearning for connection.

Last Thursday, the musical legend that was, is and always will be Prince Rogers Nelson passed away at the relatively young age of 57. The shockingly human death of such an otherworldly cultural figure sent tremors throughout the media, the recording industry and legions of devoted fans that continue to reverberate this week.

Comedian Dave Chappelle paid tribute to the Purple One in a four-hour standup set over the weekend, labeling the star’s tragic death “the black 9/11.” While I won’t argue with Chappelle, I can tell you that this very Caucasian columnist has spent days toggling between fits of loud sobbing and obsessive, greedy ingestion of all words devoted to Prince and his life/music/philanthropic works (of which there were apparently many). I attended a candlelit vigil in my Chicago neighborhood, looking for a community with which to share my grief. Mourners represented every age group, color and ethnicity on the spectrum. Prince was anachronistically unique and universal, the once in a generation artist able to speak to all – while looking utterly fabulous in four-inch heels.

In 2004, Chappelle lampooned the artist in a skit for his eponymous Comedy Central show. Narrated by Charlie Murphy and affectionately known as “Shirts vs. Blouses,” the sketch poked fun at Prince’s renowned idiosyncrasies of temperament and fashion while highlighting another important dimension of the musician’s complexity – his rabid sports fandom.  The true story humorously recounted Murphy’s humiliation on the basketball court by the diminutive but skilled Prince, before being served humble pie in the form of typical Midwestern pancakes.

The Chappelle’s Show clip became an instant classic that drew attention to Prince’s profound love of sports. We mostly knew him as the Purple Rain virtuoso and prolific songwriter who could play every instrument. But the competitive spirit of Prince was all about that game. Last week the Associated Press ran a piece entitled, Prince and Sports: Music in Blood, Basketball in His Heart. The article quotes Al Nuness, the artist’s coach at Minneapolis Central High School as saying, “He was very small…But he was quick. He could handle the ball and he could penetrate and he could dish.”

Prince was good enough to be promoted to the sophomore team as a freshman, and was frequently kicked out of the gym for unsanctioned after-hours practice (ever the rebel). While his basketball career was eventually supplanted by one in entertainment, that particular game, and in sports in general, remained a lifelong passion.

Though his devotion to hometown Minneapolis is legend, Prince couldn’t help being drawn by the dynastic 1990s Chicago Bulls franchise and its leader, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan. Last week, Jake Malooley of the Chicago Reader reprinted this account of Prince’s post-season fever:

“Once during a concert in Montreal, the Chicago Bulls were in game three of the playoffs and he was watching the game from a TV at the side of the stage while he played guitar solos. He had his wardrobe girl draw up big cards and flash the score at him.”

In other words, Prince was really no different from my dad, utterly incapable of paying full attention to an activity when his team was in the mix. Except that Prince was leading a band, doing the splits and rocking a stadium while sneaking peeks at the score, whereas my father struggled to balance headphones with eating pizza. But somehow this notion of the fantastic, magical Prince as one of us only adds to his allure – and our collective grief at his loss. As GQ’s Jack Moore recently observed, “in typical Prince fashion, the very idea that a genius, other-dimensional being, Rock God could be obsessed with something as normal as basketball seems super weird. And cool.”

Their otherworldly talents may have rendered Prince and Michael Jordan a natural pairing (Jordan’s tribute can be read here), but the artist’s heart never strayed far from Minneapolis and its teams. He wrote “Purple and Gold” for the 2009, playoff-bound Minnesota Vikings. When the Twins hit a home run, the park sound system continues to blare “Let’s Go Crazy.” And just when it seems impossible to admire Prince more, we learn of his devotion to clubs of both genders. Prince was a longtime supporter of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, and attended their championship victory over Indiana in October 2015.

Every new, shared fact about Prince underscores the tragedy of his sudden loss. It explains the on-camera tears of CNN political commentator Van Jones, a man stoically able to fight an inert Congress to create jobs on behalf of the Obama administration, but unable to retain his composure discussing the impact of Prince on his life. Believe me, I understand.

Prince’s love of sports is an approachable channel for fans yearning for connection. His devotion to the game makes him relatable as a human in a way that his music never could. There are very few who can move beyond sheer awe and amazement to comprehend the genius that created that legacy. It’s sexy and beautifully alien. But so many of us understand the small guy with the determination, if not the physique. On the court we’re able to meet Prince as equals.

If nowhere else.

Becky Sarwate is the current President of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association, founded in 1885, as well as Recording Secretary for the National Federation of Press Women. She is a national award-winning journalist, blogger, newsletter editor and theater critic. Becky lives in Chicago with her partner Bob and their menagerie of pets. Keep up with her at
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