From Rap Battles with Damian Lillard to Team USA Tryouts, Marvin Bagley III Wants ‘To Be the Best’
LAS VEGAS -- This year’s NBA draft was a banner night for Duke basketball. Zion Williamson, the ACC Player of the Year as a freshman for the Blue Devils, officially became the No. 1 overall pick of the New Orleans Pelicans. R.J. Barrett, a fellow consensus first-team All-American, went No. 3 to the New York Knicks. And Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2018, stole the show with a roiling rap battle against fellow MC (and Portland Trail Blazers All-Star) Damian Lillard.
As with any proper hip-hop beef these days, this one between MB3FIVE (Marvin’s pseudonym) and Dame D.O.L.L.A. (Damian’s pseudonym) got fans of all persuasions riled up on social media.
“Oh, man,” Marvin tells CloseUp360 during USA Basketball’s recent training camp in Las Vegas. “I didn't think it was going to be like it was. I mean, I think everybody knew we both made music, but I was having fun with it, man. We just went back and forth.”
At the time, the two dual threats made it clear on Twitter that their battle was little more than friendly competition—that there would be no festering conflict on par with 2Pac vs. Biggie. For Marvin, “It was just competing on a music level, though,” he says, “just like if we were in here playing one-on-one.”
“I have nothing but respect for Dame. He's doing everything that I'm trying to do,” he adds. “He's got his shoe, he's got his contract, he's playing basketball, being successful at it, making music—all of it, man. He's doing everything that I'm trying to get to.”
Challenging the NBA’s reigning king on the mic was just the latest step in Marvin’s musical journey. Though the 2018-19 All-Rookie first-teamer has a long way to go to catch Damian—both on the court (four All-Star appearances, four All-NBA selections, one trip to the Western Conference finals) and off (three LPs for Dame vs. none yet for MB3FIVE)—he seems anything but daunted by the pursuit of his own excellence in his two favorite crafts.
The tougher task may not be making his mark on both of those fields, so much as showing that he can succeed on the terms of each cultural sphere.
“I try to separate it,” he says. “I make music, but I don't want people to see me as just a basketball player that makes music. I think I'm more than a basketball player, more than just being an athlete out here.
“I think when I make my music, I try to check into a whole different space, a whole different world outside of basketball, not even related.”
Basketball has long been in Marvin’s blood. His grandfather, “Jumpin’” Joe Caldwell, was the No. 2 pick of the Detroit Pistons in the 1964 NBA draft and went on to be a four-time All-Star—twice in the NBA and twice more in the ABA with the Carolina Cougars.
Though Marvin wasn’t born into music to that extent, he gravitated towards it early on. While growing up in Tempe, Arizona, Marvin would listen intently while his father, Marvin Bagley Jr. (a.k.a. “Big Marv”), played music in the car stereo. From 2Pac to Jay-Z, Nas to Outkast, everything little Marvin heard was new to his ears and stimulating to his mind.
“All those artists that tell stories and try to reach people with positive messages have something to say,” he says. “Whether it's about them, whether it's good or bad, they're trying to relay a message. And it's something that I was always attached to, so my dad had a big part in that.”
Around the age of 6, Marvin started trying his own hand at hip-hop. He would pen his own lyrics and perform for friends, family, complete strangers—whoever would grant him an audience.
Wherever Marvin went, hip-hop and hoops served as constant companions, alongside his family.
As he grew—from a 6’5” quarterback early in middle school, to a 6’8” forward in eighth grade, to a multi-skilled 6’11” high school big man—so did his national profile. He led teams to state championships in Arizona and California, and rocked college basketball when, in August 2017, he reclassified from a junior to a senior and jumped to Duke University.
When he wasn’t playing basketball or working on his game, Marvin was usually either spending time with family, volunteering in the community or honing his skills as a lyricist and rapper. For him, music became an outlet through which to share stories from his life, and find peace and relaxation amid the emerging stresses in his world.
“I just have fun doing it. It's something that I really love, so I just got to keep going and keep getting better,” he says. “But basketball is always that main priority, so I got to make sure I'm leveling it out and getting better at both.”
At Duke, Marvin found room for growth in both fields.
As a basketball player, he averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds, led the Blue Devils to the Elite Eight of the 2018 NCAA tournament, and took home honors as a consensus first-team All-American and the ACC Player of the Year. As a musician, he not only took a course in the history of hip-hop, but also recorded with the teacher: Patrick Douthit, better known as the Grammy-winning producer 9th Wonder. By virtue of being in Durham, Marvin also connected with J. Cole and Rapsody, both North Carolina natives.
“I just try to reach out and, whenever I meet them, I talk to them and try to pick their brains on music,” Marvin says, “because I want to know a lot about it, just like I know a lot about basketball. But it's always more to learn, so I try to learn more about both.”
With all of that knowledge, support and studio time, Marvin managed to have a mixtape, entitled Don’t Blink, ready to drop on the night of the 2018 draft. Just as joining the Kings represented the realization of Marvin’s lifelong goal to reach the NBA, so, too, did that EP mark the most extensive release for MB3FIVE on SoundCloud to that point.
That he landed in Sacramento proved to be just as fortuitous. For one, the Kings’ ownership group includes Shaquille O’Neal, who enjoyed a Hall-of-Fame career as a big man in the NBA while trying his hand as a recording artist.
What’s more, in February 2018, prior to drafting Marvin, Sacramento traded for Iman Shumpert, who at that point was arguably the most accomplished rapper in the NBA outside of Dame. It was practically fated, then, that Marvin would wind up in Iman’s studio to lay down tracks with the artist known as 2wo 1ne.
“It was good to see how he could create in the studio right then and there,” Marvin says. “It was cool to be able to work with another artist who also plays basketball. That way, you can kind of connect on both levels.”
Marvin the Basketball Player and Marvin the Rapper have a lot in common. Beyond sharing the same physical body, they also bring a desire to work hard, improve and excel at each of their respective crafts.
“When it comes to music, I wanna be the best at it,” he says. “Whenever I'm writing, recording, I want to be the best, as well as on the court. Whenever I’m playing, I wanna be the best out there playing.”
But where Marvin the Basketball Player is hellbent on winning, Marvin the Rapper is focused on speaking out on social issues, uplifting listeners, and sharing his experiences and his faith—all without using profanity. On his latest EP, The Calm Before the Storm, which dropped on SoundCloud in April, MB3FIVE honors his family and friends, freestyles over J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” pays tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle and (probably to the chagrin of Kings fans) shouts out seven-time NBA champion Robert Horry.
“The artist is someone who's telling real-life stories, trying to relate to people,” Marvin says. “Just be that artist that can kind of tell stories and just get people out of hard times, and just tell stories about stuff I've seen throughout my life—with family, friends, myself, regular people around me, whatever it is. It may be sad, it may be happy.”
Whatever the subject matter, Marvin gets as much satisfaction out of writing songs and spending time in the studio as he ever has. At 20, without a family of his own to tend to, he can almost always find time to work on his rhymes, be it after practice during the season or following his workouts with Kings assistant coach and noted skills trainer Rico Hines over the summer.
“I practice it every day, just like basketball,” Marvin says. “Work out in the morning, lift, shoot later, then have the rest of the day to just write and record and get creative and kind of clear my mind.”
That was the case even during Marvin’s stint with USA Basketball’s Select Team in Las Vegas during the first full week of August. There, his spare time spent jotting down notes and formulating bars did little to hinder his performance on the court. He did so well, in fact, that he earned a promotion to the Senior Team, with a chance to crack the 12-man roster that Team USA head coach Gregg Popovich will take to Australia for exhibition games in late August followed by the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China from the end of August into mid-September.
Or, at least, that would’ve been the case had Marvin not withdrawn from consideration prior to Team USA’s sessions at the UCLA Health Training Center—where the Los Angeles Lakers practice—this week. According to The New York Times’ Marc Stein, the NBA sophomore-to-be pulled out, so he could focus on his upcoming season with the Kings.
That decision might also leave MB3FIVE with more leeway to finish and release his first full-length album, which he’s dubbed Big Jreams, with “JREAM” as an acronym for “Jesus Rules Everything Around Me.”
Either way, his experience with Team USA could give both Marvins a boost.
The benefit to the Basketball Player of spending hours each day in Las Vegas under the tutelage of some of the game’s most respected coaches—including Pop, the Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr, the Atlanta Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce and Villanova’s Jay Wright—is clear. The same goes for him hooping alongside and against some of the NBA’s brightest young stars, from Kemba Walker and Kyle Kuzma to Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and fellow Kings De’Aaron Fox and Harrison Barnes.
MB3FIVE, meanwhile, likely came away with more material to be written down and cemented during sessions in the studio.
“There's always something that could spark that creative flame when you're doing music or you're making music,” he says. “So I'm pretty sure, from all my experiences on the court here and off the court with my family and stuff, that I've seen to spark something creative in my mind that creates something musically.
“Everywhere you go is always a chance to create and learn and just grow.”
As for that musical matchup with Dame, Marvin will have his chances to translate that to the court. The first comes on October 25, when the Kings host the Blazers at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, with three more meetings to follow in November, December and March.
After that, the two could meet again next summer in Las Vegas, when Team USA holds its training camp in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Health (and, in Marvin’s case, progress) permitting, both figure to participate in some capacity after declining to do so at different stages with this year’s China-bound squad.
And if Marvin winds up on the same buses and shares the Mendenhall Center on UNLV’s campus with Dame next summer, he’ll go at the Blazers’ franchise star on the court while seeking advice from a fellow MC when the moment allows for it.
MB3FIVE's Top Tracks on SoundCloud
2) "No Debate"
“If he was here at this camp,” Marvin says, “I'd be reaching out, talking to him and just trying to pick his brain on all levels musically.”
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.