Marvin Bagley III, Andre Drummond and Aaron Gordon
Photos by PJ Escobar, Adi Muhtarevic and Jordan Jimenez
How Music Is Helping The NBA's Top Lyricists Rebound In Orlando "Bubble," At-Home Quarantines & Beyond
Disclaimer: This article was reported and interviews were conducted before the NBA strikes of Aug. 26 and subsequent talks of a season cancellation.
Andre Drummond, Aaron Gordon and Marvin Bagley III are their respective teams' franchise players—earning a collective average of 15.6 points per game this NBA season alone. Drummond is a two-time All-Star and has unashamedly shattered league rebounding records. Bagley was the second-overall draft pick just a couple years ago, with a career-high 29-point game in his back pocket with several more on the horizon. And Gordon is a hazard at the rim, with some of the greatest dunk contest performances in the league's history to his name.
But whatever hopes they had going into this season—with the biggest being championship rings finally sitting on their fingers—were temporarily cut short on March 11, as COVID-19 put an abrupt halt to the trio's 2019–20 hoop dreams. They packed their bags, rebounded at home and trained relentlessly in hopes of a restart. And of course, they got one. Without Drummond’s Cleveland Cavaliers and a handful of other teams, Bagely's Sacramento Kings and Gordon's Orlando Magic opened the season back up in the Magic's terrain in late July, with the NBA's bubble hosting games in Orlando.
But it wasn't picture-perfect for the ballers. Drummond wasn't playing, Bagely had to leave after a week due to a season-ending injury and Gordon's hopes of bringing his Magic to the NBA finals were washed away as he watched the first round of the playoffs courtside with a faulty hamstring. In short, life happened to the three super athletes. So, like anyone over the last five months, they had to readjust.
Through season-ending injury, going home ringless and adapting to life away from family in the league's quarantine, the three men still found healing. And they found it in music. Drummond, Bagely and Gordon have spent the last five months either at home or sitting in a hotel surrounded by teammates as new ideas for lyrics, beats and melodies take over. The three ballers double as musicians—an ambiguity that comes with stigma yet still takes them away from the confines of a busy schedule, non-stop press conferences and gruelling practices and off-seasons. And this literal rebound of a season has taught them just how necessary music is in their lives.
"I started off in more of a basketball mindset," Drummond says of the start of quarantine. "I thought the season would’ve come back sooner. I focused most of my time on working out, and when I found out the season was over for a long time, I started representing my interest in music again."
Drummond, whose Cavs didn't contend for "bubble" status this season, has spent the last several months putting that usual late-season energy into his music career. His latest release under his musical alias Drummxnd, F.Y.I II, dropped in August as his second project to date.
On the record, he bounces from hard-hitting trap beats to groovy, ‘80s-inspired, synth-laced production. He doubles as both a rapper and singer on the project, citing influences like Travis Scott, whose own croon could've slid right into the nine-track effort without raising any suspicion.
"I've always done music for a long time, and with my passion for it, having the time that I have now to sit down and really learn the art has been so much fun," Drummond said. "The creative process has been incredible."
For his second project, and for those that follow, Drummond is relying on himself more than ever. Basketball's team-player mentality has always been prevalent with how he operated as an artist and enlisted producers, but the extended off-season has brought him closer to his capabilities as a beat-maker. The last four months have introduced Drummond to new instruments, his just-realized self-production skills and the importance of curating a home studio—all of which have kept him sane through the uncertainty.
"I'm doing something every day to get myself better and learn more about the art," Drummond says. "I bought myself home-system stuff too, so I started teaching myself how to record myself and make beats. I got [my setup going] just now. I've got a few things—a monitor, a computer, a microphone and all that too. And I'm teaching myself how to play piano."
With F.Y.I II, a title that further emphasizes how Drummxnd has arrived as a musician, Drummond is on a mission to prove that he can be taken seriously despiste preconceived notions of athletes behind the mic. Fans often see ballers-turned-lyricists as NBA players trying to rap, and not all embrace their favorite athletes' musical work. But Drummond wants to break that. He's learning. He's growing. And he's even proving so by separating his personal Instagram account and his Drummxnd page. On one, he boasts 1.2 million followers—the usual for an NBA All-Star. On the other, just about 15K. But, if anything, that just shows his determination to excel at the craft and grow his product from the ground up.
"At first when I came out [with music], I saw people looking at me sideways, like, 'Why is he making music, he should stick to basketball,'" Drummond said. "My favorite thing about making music is, the more consistent you are with it, the more people end up liking it eventually. Nobody likes new things when they first come around, when you're so used to seeing something else."
Bagely has been there, too. Last year, the Kings' power forward came out with his debut project, the 42-minute Big Jreams, an honest introduction from the NBA newcomer laced with a mix of trap standards and the occasional boom-bap curveball.
Even right off the heels of his latest effort On The Way, featuring a verse from NBA All-Star and fellow spitter Damian Lillard, Bagley—rap name MB3FIVE—is looking forward to his artistic growth. He exclusively revealed to GRAMMY.com that his latest project, Behind It All, is heading to DSPs in October. And, just like his ball playing, his messaging is consistent.
"I'm still young, I'm still experiencing life,” Bagley said. "And when I put those experiences into music, it's a lot more to me that a lot of people don't know. That's why I'm naming the next project—the album—Behind It All. Everything I put out is a story about my life… I still think I gotta prove myself as an artist. I have fans that believe in what I’m doing, rock with me and support me. I just have that 'never satisfied' attitude. I still got a lot to prove with this music stuff. That's why I'm excited to release this next project, because you really see a different side that you’ve never heard."
Recording the project has served as a crucial creative outlet for Bagley, who sprained his foot just days after entering the NBA bubble and had to depart. Even during his short time in the league's quarantine, he says he couldn't help but pick up a pen and unleash his inner-lyricist.
"I did a lot of writing when I was in the room," Bagley says. "The first 48 hours or so, we had to get there and quarantine so I did a lot of writing. But as far as recording, I was really just trying to get those songs together, put them in a nice project, line them up and just release it."
Since leaving the bubble, Bagley watched his Kings finish off the season from home as he put his energy into not only his physical recovery, but also his upcoming record. Both have found a way to parallel each other.
"Music is a healing thing for me," Bagley says as he recovers from his injury. "We go through a lot of different things, a lot of different situations, we see a lot of different things growing up. Sometimes people don’t get a chance to let that shit out that they see, netted up in a way where it's creative. When I record, I hope somebody hears my music and its healing for them as well."
Gordon, on the other hand, just watched his team's playoff run clock out while recovering from a late-season injury. And like Bagley, he says music has been the ultimate healer, but more so on the spiritual side. "It keeps me light-hearted, it keeps me having fun and [lets me] look at the bigger picture with perspective," Gordon said.
While MB3FIVE and Drummxnd are now two projects deep in their musical arsenals, Gordon is still fairly new to the hip-hop world. His debut single, "Pull Up" featuring Moe, dropped back in February, with its follow-up "9 Out of 10"—a diss track dedicated to Dwayne Wade for essentially costing Gordon his dunk contest victory this year with a less-than-adequate score for Gordon—both had fans talking. Now, Gordon’s music has become his "And-1" in the bubble, as he just put the final touches on his upcoming single "Level Up" with a debut album locked and loaded.
"I finished all my songs for the album and now it's just a matter of mixing and mastering," Gordon says of bringing his music into the bubble. "After I said what I needed to say on the album, I felt gassed out. I felt emptiness. I didn’t like some of the things that basically my alter ego was saying on the track and it really made me question my character."
Gordon says sharing himself as an artist for the first time was difficult, but the bubble has given him some additional time to reflect on what he's recorded over the last several months.
"[I'm] alone, you know, and obviously I got my teammates," Gordon says. "But for the most part, you're by yourself, with yourself all the time. So to be able to reflect and really challenge your character, I’m making sure what I'm saying is everything that I want to be heard."
Next up for Gordon, as he exits the bubble, is preparing his album's messaging for young fans who are inspired by his duality. Like Drummond and Bagley, he doesn’t just want to entertain them, he wants to offer something more.
"I think it’s just right in the wheelhouse of that stereotypical 'man' box,” Gordon says of his message. "Everything I’ve been taught—all the negative things I’ve been taught—as a kid, and as a man, a young man growing up, it kind of spilled out onto the tracks. I’m excited to see what the response is."
Quarantine, injuries and a season restart have given all three men added motivation to write, record and tackle the stigmas that come along with being an emcee in the NBA.
And for them, regardless of how their year has panned out, music has been their sixth man of the year, and for many years to follow.