PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER GABELLO.
The New York Knicks are the oldest team in the NBA. Of their 15-person team, eight players are over 30—the oldest, Kurt Thomas, is 40—and six are 28 or 29. Only Iman Shumpert, last year's rookie, is 22.
Born in Chicago, Shumpert learned how to play basketball from watching his older brothers. He finally beat them when he was in the seventh or eighth grade, a momentous occasion for a younger sibling. "Nothing they could do after that," he chuckles. Lauded for his skilled defense, Shumpert guards the opposing teams' star players—LeBron James, Kobe Bryant—the athletes even basketball neophytes have heard of.
Shumpert takes his position as the Knicks' youngest member seriously. Since injuring his ACL in April of last year, he has attended every Knicks game, sitting on the sidelines with his '90s-style flat-top hair and stylish, playful suits. Shumpert is not the only injured player—superstar Amar'e Stoudemire is also out—but he is the only one you'll see anxiously sitting on the team bench three times a week. A fledgling rapper, Shumpert even penned the team's first-ever rap, the Knicks "Clique," blasted at every game. If you visit his website, you'll see he's self-described as "a '90s baby," who misses "high shorts with long compressions, arm bands on the off arm, Johnny Bravo and Dragon Ball Z... albums that tell stories" and "genuine hate in sports." This week, he's releasing his mixtape debut, Th3 #Post90s, under the name 2wo 1ne.
The Knicks are having their best season in years, and Shumpert's itching to get back. Maybe with Iman on board they'll finally be able to beat Houston, Jeremy Lin's new team and the only one that's defeated the Knicks at home this season. Whether you're more interested in his sporting ability, style, or rap songs, Shumpert's definitely a face to watch for 2013.
EMMA BROWN: What made you pick the number 21 for your Knicks jersey?
IMAN SHUMPERT: Actually, my mother's birthday is of the 21st of August, and in seventh grade I wore 21 just solely because it was my mother's birthday and I couldn't get number 1. Then I wore 32 in high school, 1 in college. 32 I wore because it was like Mr. Triple-Double—I've always got a little theme that goes with my number. And in college, 1, just because I was the point guard. I got here and Stat [Amar'e Stoudemire] had number 1, I wasn't gonna take it from Stat. [laughs] So I just went back to 21.
BROWN: You've talked about how basketball was a lot more aggressive in the '90s than it is today, was it like that in the '80s as well?
SHUMPERT: It was pretty intense in the '80s, but '90s style was a little more fit towards me, I think, and a little more influential.
BROWN: When did things change?
SHUMPERT: Just recently within the last 10 years, they've been slowly [implementing rules]—a lot to do with the fighting. I understand it; they don't want the league to be looked at as violent, or anything that makes us look like outcasts. But personally, I kind of liked it when it was more aggressive and it wasn't as bad when you got into that. Guys are real passionate, when you're locked into a game you're not thinking about getting fined however much money if you get in a fight. We'll get in a fight, we'll leave it on the court, we'll be friends right after—that's how I'm used to playing.
BROWN: Is it easy to be friends with people on other teams?
SHUMPERT: No. I don't really like to be. We could be friends after the game, in the summertime. But when we're playing, I pretty much hate everybody. I [do] hang out with my teammates all the time.
BROWN: It must be difficult to hang out inconspicuously...
SHUMPERT: Oh, yeah. [laughs] We're not gonna blend in anywhere. Everywhere we go, we stick out. We try not to be in places where we'll get heckled.
BROWN: I wanted to talk about your new mixtape, Th3 #Post90s. I really like the "Things Done Changed" Biggie sample on "Progress."
SHUMPERT: I just thought it was a really good sample to use—that one line—because that's key for somebody like me. Growing up with three brothers, all you ever wanted was to be in the NBA, things happen at home, you're in need of a lot of stuff that you can't get access to. And then finally you can, but you don't have to change as a person. Things done changed, but you can remain the same person. That's the biggest thing about the song.
The difference between me and other athletes is that I'm speaking on things that I go through that I know other people go through. I think a lot of times the mistake in music—even rappers that are trying to be big time—if you're broke, rap about being broke, if you're sensitive, rap about being sensitive, 'cause there are other sensitive people. If you're sensitive but you talk about being a tough person that doesn't care about anything, people will call your bluff. My music, you know I'm not lying about anything, and the way you can tell is how in-depth I can get about everything I'm talking about. I like to paint pictures with words, 'cause I can't draw for anything. I like art; if I could just draw pictures all day, I would, but I can't, I'm horrible. I practiced at it, still didn't get better—gave it up. I'm good with words though, so I write music, poetry, sometimes I just journal in my phone. [During the off season] some [players] choose to go to Great America, some people go laser tag, some people go paintball, some people go fishing—I rap. I don't go fishing. I think I'm gonna paintball this summer though, but usually I just rap. Especially with a torn ACL, sitting in the bed for six weeks, couldn't really get up and do anything. I call it writer's block when I have nothing to talk about. I could make it sound good, but I hate having nothing to talk about. I need to go through stuff. I need bad stuff to happen to me. I think I'm better that way.
BROWN: PhlyyB appears on quite a few of your songs. How did you meet him?
SHUMPERT: Me, Phlyy, Ari Stylez... it's 12 of us. We were all on the same basketball team in high school, and we were always together on and off the court. I always did music, and Phlyy always did music, but I think people didn't take us seriously because he played football and I played basketball. We both did our own little mixtapes and spread 'em around the high school and people were like, "Oh, they can really rap," and they started liking our music. Me and Phlyy always did it, and Ari Stylez started to do it. And then after we left high school, Phlyy and Ari started doing it full-time. Tearing my ACL, I started doing a whole lot more 'cause I had a lot more time just to sit, think, write.
They keep me grounded. Ever since I made it to the league, yeah, they treat me different as far as they're happy for me, and if we go out to eat they want me to take the bill. But when they get around me it's still the same thing—"You ain't nothin', I used to beat you when we was in eighth grade. And nobody cares. You think ‘cause you're in the NBA I won't smack you in the face?" That's how they act, but it keeps me grounded, so I love being around them. They got all the embarrassing stories, they're always cracking them on me every chance they get, anytime they catch me slipping up, they wanna hold onto that moment of me being humiliated. So it's great.
BROWN: Are you ever like, "Hey, stop picking on me"?
SHUMPERT: No, I'm not soft. If you pick on me, I'll pick on you. Well, I'll pick on you if you don't pick on me, so you gotta get yours in.
BROWN: In your "#Anarchy Episode VII" video, you're wearing Melo [Carmelo Anthony]'s jersey—why?
SHUMPERT: As a rookie, when you come in, everybody has their mentor, or their veteran that takes them under their wing. Melo took me under his wing, and he's taught me so much on and off the court. I knew coming into this year, me being hurt and just seeing him work throughout the summer, I knew what type of focus he was in. Me wearing that jersey was just sort of to pay homage to him, 'cause I knew what was coming. We shot that video in the summer, so a lot of people didn't know what was coming this year, as far as his mental focus and how he was in shape and ready for this year. I knew it was gonna be an MVP-style season for him. That was me just paying respects to my veteran. Maybe I won't have to get his bag as much, get his bag off the plane and stuff like that that he makes me do.
BROWN: It must be difficult being the youngest on the team by so much.
SHUMPERT: Oh yeah. Even our rookie, Chris Copeland, I think he's 28. So yeah, I'm the young guy, but I think they still all look up to me. [laughs] I got drafted when I finally turned 21, and they rub it in, they think it's hilarious how young I am. The cool thing is that they respect that I got my own lane, my own thing that I do. I don't really follow anybody. But they just think it's funny because I'm so much younger, so they'll be like, "You see things so much different than we do." But it's cool, 'cause I get to learn from them, and they get to stay in the loop with what's cool with me, so we all good.
BROWN: Why is it important for you to go to every game while you're injured?
SHUMPERT: I wanna sit back and learn from the sidelines. It's harder for me to learn watching on TV because when I'm sitting on the side I can hear the other team's play-calls, I can hear the chatter and hear what's going on during the came. I get to see my teammates' emotions—maybe they miss a couple shots, I get to see their demeanor. I get to see where, when I come back, I can help. Maybe I see something on the court—a guy's cheating, trying to come to double-team Melo. I can tell him. I can't do that from home, you know? So I love to be right there with 'em. Plus, before the game, we all do a bunch of stuff. I DJ in the locker room, I make sure the guys [are] amped. I'm the young guy. I bless the floor before the games. I'm part of the pregame antics. I like to be there and just be with the guys, just so when I come back it's not, like, a totally new person coming back: "He's been here with us the whole time, it's just [that] he had a bad knee." [laughs]
BROWN: Is it frustrating to watch the games?
SHUMPERT: Extremely, extremely. But they've made it a lot easier on me by winning so many games, and winning in a pretty fancy fashion. I think that them doing that only makes me more comfortable with taking my time when coming back. As long as we win, I'm happy.
BROWN: Would you ever want to coach?
SHUMPERT: No, I think I'm way too intense to coach. Maybe I will one day. I would have to have a son that wants me to coach.
BROWN: Do you feel like playing defense is a thankless job?
SHUMPERT: Yeah. I don't like to be glorified for it, but I get it, it's a "lost art" and everything. A lot of people [ask],"Why do you love playing defense?" I don't love playing defense at all, actually. But I hate when people score on me and I want the ball so bad that I'm willing to go hard on the other end to get it back. Some people take the easy route—"If he scores, whatever. We'll get the ball back and score it on that end." I'm the complete opposite. I want to win by 100, so I'm willing to do whatever to get the ball back and score it again. I love to dunk it, too. That's why I like to steal it in an open court. 'Cause I like to dunk while you fall or while you're trailing. I like to yell in your face. I'm into that.
BROWN: Do you have a best game since you've been on the Knicks?
SHUMPERT: I'd say it's either the game at home against Philly or the game at home against the Bulls. 'Cause everybody was so nervous to guard D. Rose [Bulls player Derrick Rose], and I just don't think anybody's invincible. He's not used to people getting up on him, I don't think, and it helped us win. Those are my happiest games, when I fill up the stat sheet.
BROWN: Is it devastating when you lose a game? Or do you just move focus on the next game?
SHUMPERT: No, I'm a sore loser. [laughs] I'm a terrible loser. But it's because I have three brothers that would rub it in. So losing, I just hate it. I can't help it. After you lose—especially in collegiate and now playing professionally—a lot of guys will tell you, "On to the next. Next game. We gotta get the next one. Erase this one from your head." And it's hard for me until we start the next game to get rid of that. I'm working on it, though.
BROWN: When did you come up with the Knicks theme tune?
SHUMPERT: Oh, the Knicks "Clique" song? [to friends] She said the theme tune. [laughs] I was like, Huh? The Knicks "Clique" came about when I was joking around on media day with Cope and some of the veteran guys. [raps] "Yeah, I'm talking bout/Yeah I'm talking Tyson/And that's gold medal." It was just a joke at first: "Ain't nobody messin' with my Knicks, Knicks, Knicks." Then they put it on camera on media day and all the fans were like, "When are you gonna put the whole song out?" And, in my head, I'm thinking, "There is no song. That's actually it." It was just supposed to be a couple of bars, but everybody liked it so much. Of course I caught heat from around the league. Everybody's fans got mad, "You guys are corny, you got a song out" and la-la-la. But they were just mad cause they probably got taped and they don't have their own song, they don't have a guy on their team that could rap. I understand if they're getting mad. It's cool.
BROWN: There's not much crossover between professional sports and music.
SHUMPERT: Yeah, I understand. A lot of people try to hit you with the, "You should be focused on basketball!" But you can't just play basketball 24 hours a day. Some people say "Read a book"—I don't like reading books. I think sometimes reading books is a waste of time. I think you should write a book before you read it. But to each his own.
BROWN: What sort of music do you listen to?
SHUMPERT: All rap. Rap, hip-hop. I'm more geared toward hip-hop than rap, but I like my rap music sometimes just to get hyped. Some songs are just catchy. Like right now, [Trinidad James'] "All Gold Everything"—I love that song. I don't know about his look, he does a lot of weird stuff, but it works for him. It's different.
BROWN: What song do you listen when you want to get hyped?
SHUMPERT: Probably Kendrick Lamar's m.A.A.d City "Backseat Freestyle."
BROWN: Have you ever thought about collaborating with someone like Lamar?
SHUMPERT: If Kendrick Lamar says he wants to collaborate with me, it will happen. But, because I play basketball, it's hard for me to go up to a rapper and be like, "Yo, I want you to hop on a song." That's the equivalent of them coming and being like, "Man, come up to the gym with me," or, "Can I come to the gym with you?" And it's like, "Nah." And I get it. That's their profession. They don't wanna just hop on a song with somebody 'cause they might not think I take it as serious, so I try to stay away from asking people. I'm an athlete, a basketball player—that's what I get paid for. I'm not trying to get paid off rap. I could respect them wanting to stay in their lane, and me staying in mine.
BROWN: Is there anyone you think of as particularly stylish?
SHUMPERT: You know, I probably would've said A$AP Rocky, but then the other day I saw a picture of him wearing a dress, so I have to stray away from that. Certain people do stuff on certain days—Tyson Chandler's on my team, he'll come out and do some other stuff that I don't agree with, but every once in a while, he'll wear something and I'll be like, "I like that." I've seen Nick Young put some cool stuff together. I like Wiz Khalifa's album cover. A lot of people hated it. He's got on the fur with no shirt—that's cool to me. A$AP Rocky, sometimes he wears like the tall tee, with a missing part and a white tee under. I like when people do cool stuff that might be a little off-the-wall to anybody else, but they found a way to make it work for that day. I wouldn't recommend that people wear it every day like that, but if you every once in a while just spice it up, I like that. I dare to be different.
BROWN: Last question: if you could interview anyone, whom would you want to interview?
SHUMPERT: Probably Kanye West. [laughs] Kanye because I've actually watched a lot of Kanye's interviews and just seen him spaz out because people won't let him finish his sentence or maybe they're trying to get a certain piece of information out of him and he's trying to explain something else. [laughs] I just think I can appreciate that, 'cause I know how that feels. I wouldn't choose to act as Kanye does all the time, but I would like to interview him, 'cause I feel like I got some good questions to ask him as opposed to some of the reporters and people that do ask him stuff.
TH3 #POST90s COMES OUT TOMORROW, DECEMBER 21 AT 12:21 AM ON SHUMPERT'S WEBSITE.
To see more of our 13 Faces of 2013, click here. To see Iman's 10 favorite things, click here.