The writer and tv host Touré has a new book out, called I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon. It's a study of the cultural impact of the artist behind such iconic albums as Purple Rain and Diamonds And Pearls. In one of the most memorable passages, Touré is invited out to Paisley Park to shoot hoops. This is a familiar setting to fans of the comedian Dave Chappelle -- a popular skit from his Comedy Central show dramatizes what this might be like. Well, here's the real thing:
From I Would Die 4 U, by Touré:
I got a glimpse of Prince’s weird ways of interacting with people when I spent time with him at Paisley Park for a cover story I was writing for the now-defunct Icon magazine. It was 1998, and we did an interview that was too short and incomprehensible to support a cover story, partly because he didn’t allow recording devices, which made it nearly impossible to capture the dramatic, diversion-filled paragraphs he speaks in and that sometimes went in circles, using parables and sentences so cryptic that they’d fit in a David Lynch film. When I looked back at the notes I’d scribbled while he talked I kept asking myself, what did that mean? The notes I wrote did little justice to what he had said and I couldn’t commit his quotes to memory due to his unique language. So, his quotes, in my story, were often approximations of what he said, usually more his intent than his exact words. Apparently, he intends to be cryptic. An former girlfriend said, “Sometimes he says things that make you feel like you haven’t gotten an answer. He leaves you to have to think about every word he says, which is kind of irritating.”
After our interview, I asked his publicist if I could email him more questions. Because I had a cover story to do, it was allowed. I emailed Prince ten. The last question was, “Will you play basketball with me?” (I knew that in high school the only thing he really cared about, apart from music, was basketball. He played on his high school team and by all reports he was good although his chance to get a lot of playing time was stymied by being small.) Well, one night a few days later, he emailed back answers to some of my questions and ignored others, but to my question about basketball he wrote, “Any time brother . . . :).” Any time? I put a basketball in my bag and boarded the next possible plane to Minneapolis. I don’t think he expected that. I wanted a real human interaction with him but didn’t know if he could or would give it to me.
Paisley Park is a large, modern-looking building located in a field just outside of Minneapolis, in tiny Chanhassen. From the outside, the large white-tiled walls make it look like a Mercedes dealership without windows. Inside Paisley, which houses recording studios, a large rehearsal stage, and offices, there was a quiet manicness, as if it’s a music lover’s Alice in Wonderland. Oversized comfy chairs of all colors sit amid pillars topped with gold disks and thick blue carpeting dotted with zodiac signs. A flock of golden doves seemed to tumble from the sky in a painting on one of the walls. (People said the building had been a clean, minimalist white for fifteen years, but had become colorful, either because of the influence of his new wife Mayte or in anticipation of a baby.)
As Prince sat for a photo shoot that would accompany my story, he spoke to us in weird but witty asides. Flipping through Vanity Fair, he came to an article about Ronald Reagan, long after his presidency, battling Alzheimer’s.
Prince asked, “Think Reagan has Alzheimer’s?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He gave me a sly look as if to say, don’t believe it. I’d heard he was a conspiracy theorist. I laughed and began writing what he’d said in my notepad.
“Don’t write that!” he said playfully. “I’ll have the Secret Service at my door.” He adopts a mock federal agent voice. “You say somethin’ about Reagan?”
The room cracked up. I asked, “Why would they lie about that?”
He said, “To keep him from answering questions.”
When I pulled my basketball from my bag and told him I wanted to play ball he told an assistant to “clear out the back to play basketball” and get his sneakers. I’d heard he played in heels. “Who told you that?” he said in an incredulous tone, as if that were the most ridiculous suggestion ever. I said, “I don’t remember.” He said, “A jealous man told you that story.” (Not quite: Wendy Melvoin once told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Prince would sometimes break from rehearsals to play basketball . . . in heels. She said, “He would go outside and play basketball in the high heels, which he’s now paying for, I’m sure. With his heels on, he could run faster than me, and I was wearing tennies.”)23
Prince disappeared and, after a short while, the two-person photo team and I were led toward the back, into the rehearsal room. When we got there, Prince was jamming with his band while wearing a tight, almost sheer, long-sleeved black top and tight black pants. He had changed since the photo shoot only minutes before. After a few songs, he put down his guitar and walked around a corner to where there was a single basketball hoop and enough room to play half court. He slipped off his cream colored heels and reached into a box of sneakers and pulled out some old and clearly used, but not too tattered, redand-white Nike Air Force high-tops. He laced them up and with that, the guy who was a backup point guard for Central High in Minneapolis was ready to ball.
He picked up my ball and made a face that was understood in international shit-talking parlance to mean I’ma kick yo’ ass, and started knifing around the court, moving quick, dribbling fast, sliding under my arm to snatch rebounds I thought for sure I had. He was showing off, being competitive, and, yes, engaging me in the same way I’d interacted with so many men I had played basketball with before. He moved like a player and played like one of those darting little guys you have to keep your eye on every second. Blink and he’s somewhere you wouldn’t expect. Lose control of your dribble for a heartbeat and he’s relieved you of the ball. He jitterbugged around the court like a sleek little lightning bug, so fast he’d leave a defender stranded and looking stupid if he weren’t careful. With his energy and discipline it was a rapid game, but never manic, or out of control. Still, we were both rusty so most shots missed, clunking off the side of the rim or the backboard. After a while, there was not much of a score. I scored on a drive that felt too easy and as the ball dropped in I looked back at him. He said, “I don’t foul guests.” Okay. On the next play I drove again and the joker bumped my arm really tough, fouling me. Funny dude.
After a time he and I teamed up against my photographer (who Prince had told not to take pictures of the game) and Morris Hayes, his six-foot-four blond, Afroed keyboardist. Prince played like a natural leader, setting picks and making smart passes, showing a discipline many street players never grasp. Then, he took it boldly to the hole, twisting through the air in between both opponents to make a layup. It was, maybe, a bit too aggressive, but he exhibited the confidence of a man who’s taken on the world and won.
Once, I was dribbling the ball at the top of the key when I saw he was in good position under the basket. I flicked a quick, no-look pass his way. The ball zipped past both defenders but then I realized he didn’t know it was coming. I started to yell out to him, the man I had known, sort of, for over fifteen years. I called out, “Prince!” But this was during the Symbol period, when his name was unpronounceable and you weren’t supposed to call him Prince. Titanic faux pas! Would he storm out and banish me from Paisley Park? I had this thought process as the word “Prince” was coming out of my mouth so really what I said was, “Pri . . . !” like the first syllable, then caught myself and slapped my hands over my dirty mouth as if to keep that sound and any other from getting out. The ball sailed past him and out of bounds. He jogged off to retrieve it and as he walked back he had a badass smirk on his face. I looked at him, like, “What?” I had no idea what would happen next. Then the man laughed as he said, “He didn’t know what to call me.” He loved the confusion, loved that I didn’t know how to connect with him, that I was off balance and couldn’t even call him by a name much less really know him. That symbolized so much. After balling and bonding and being guys together, teammates, he still relished there being a barrier between him and me, keeping us from getting close. Still, I kept trying.
A few moments later I passed to him on the baseline and, full of poise, he coolly threw up a jumper. It swished in and we won the game. He was too cool for school about it. We high-fived, but he still kept a distance. After that, we took a walk alone together through a giant closet, a warehouse-sized room filled with clothes on racks. He pointed out some past tour outfits and abruptly gave me a black-andgold hockey jersey with his logo on the front. Then, he showed me an old picture of him playing tennis and said he was really good at the sport. He said, “I was too small to play”—he pointed back toward the basketball court—“in high school. I like tennis better than that.” Finally, he was sharing with me, taking me beyond image making and toward the real man. I thought we were about to really connect for a second. I said something about playing tennis—I had a vision of somehow playing with him. Then, he abruptly excused himself in a way that made it clear that this was not goodbye. Then he was gone. An hour later I was still in the lobby of Paisley Park, waiting to keep talking or say goodbye or something. Someone came down and said it was time to go. They said that saying goodbye wasn’t his way. Perhaps it would come too close to a normal human interaction.