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NEW YORK — Before the New York Knicks would play at Madison Square Garden, Taj Gibson would turn up the music in the locker room to hype his teammates up.
Pop Smoke’s hit song “Welcome to the Party” routinely blasted from the speakers.
Gibson, a Fort Greene native, met the fellow Brooklyn-born rapper last season while playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves during a road game at MSG. Pop Smoke attended the game with a mutual friend who knew Gibson.
Just two weeks ago, Gibson ran into the rapper, who was walking by himself, in downtown Manhattan. Gibson told the 20-year-old rapper he was proud of the strides he made and was a big fan of his music.
It was the last time Gibson would see his young friend.
Pop Smoke, real name Bashar Barakah Jackson, was shot Wednesday during a home invasion in Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, and died of a gunshot wound to the torso.
“It’s a sad part about our culture, especially the hip-hop culture and African American culture,” Gibson told Bleacher Report. “The more success you get, the more kind of a target you become. The smallest things can turn into a bad atmosphere for you. That’s one thing we fail to realize. I’m just lost for words right now.”
Pop Smoke’s official videos on YouTube for “Welcome to the Party,” “Dior” and “War” combined for 57 million views. On Billboard’s Top 100, the song “Gatti” by JACKBOYS, Travis Scott and Pop Smoke peaked at No. 69. He also collaborated with other musical stars, including Nicki Minaj and Quavo.
Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. explained why the loss of Pop Smoke and other rappers such as Nipsey Hussle are more than just a blow to the music industry.
“It’s tragic, sad, and it’s just a major blow for the hip-hop world, but I feel like also for the black community because they’re leaders,” Smith told Bleacher Report. “They represent our struggle, and they’re voices for us. They give a lot of people who never had to deal with some of the things we deal with an insight into that world. To see them go and leave this earth is super unfortunate.”
For Smith, Pop Smoke’s music became an acquired taste after hearing it for the first time at LaGuardia Airport on his way home to train this past summer. Since then, Smith and his brother, Desmond, shared an appreciation for the rapper’s music. Smith couldn’t ignore the “buzz” around Pop Smoke, and would notice “the whole mood changed” whenever his music played.
“He made some really good music,” Smith said. “I feel like he meant a lot to New York. He was definitely on the come up. He was an important part of rap right now. He came up with a different sound. I took it back home. I was playing it during All-Star Weekend. Down South, people were rocking to it too. There were a couple of people down South who hadn’t heard of him, and I played a song for them, and they were instantly on him. He was a super talented young black man, and you hate to see somebody like that leave the earth this early.”
While growing up in Canarsie, Pop Smoke endured struggles before finding success through music. The rapper dealt drugs and spent two years on house arrest for a weapons charge, as The Ringer’s Danny Schwartz noted, before beginning his music career in earnest in 2018.
“His voice was unique,” Gibson said. “He had a different sound. Just so much talent. For a guy that talented, for me to really have words with him and really talk to him, he was super intellectual. He had a lot to offer, and he would’ve been a good inspiration for young guys to look up to and understand if you stay on the grind and you persevere, you can be successful just like him.
“It’s tough because when you go to Canarsie, it’s tough out there towards the back of Brooklyn. There aren’t many let-outs, but there’s still a lot of talent out there. All the young guys, we’ve got to protect them. We’ve got to keep these young rappers safe. But it’s been a bad week. You know what I’m saying? You saw so much potential, and the young man just didn’t really get a chance to live his life.”
Knicks guard Damyean Dotson echoed Gibson’s point about the need for protection as a public figure like a rapper or NBA player.
“Stuff like that is tragic,” Dotson said. “You’ve got to be safe. You’ve got to know who you’re around. You’ve got to be protected. If you’re living like that (lavishly), you’ve got to be protected. You’ve got to be safe. It’s a dangerous world.”
Pacers center Myles Turner recalled Kemba Walker playing Pop Smoke in the locker room before each game during Team USA’s 2019 FIBA World Cup in China and how his death put things in perspective.
“The biggest thing that goes through my head is just how precious life is, and no matter how successful, rich, famous and influential you are, it can all be taken away at any moment, so it makes you take a step back and appreciate what you have,” Turner said.
Despite the loss of Pop Smoke, his memory will live on through his music for several NBA players, including Gibson, who vowed to play Pop Smoke for the rest of the year “nonstop.”
Michael Scotto is an NBA writer for Bleacher Report and the Associated Press. Seen on NBA TV and YES Network. Heard on ESPN Radio, SiriusXM NBA Radio and WFAN. This is his ninth season covering the NBA. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeAScotto.