From A Rapper To A Gym Rat Miller Master P

GROWING UP IN NEW ORLEANS'S Calliope housing projects, Percy Miller learned some hard life lessons. But in a smallish basketball arena in Fort Wayne, Ind., recently, there were more to learn. Ira Bowman, who plays guard for the Connecticut Pride, isolated Miller on the left side, then spun past him to the baseline: easy layup. Miller, best known as the rapper and impresario Master P, earned $56.5 million in 1998, according to Forbes. But here, he's just another $1,000-a-week backup guard for the Fort Wayne Fury of the Continental Basketball Association, getting an education. Bowman isolated him again, faked to the baseline, then cut to the basket: two more points.

While the NBA sleeps, Master P, 29, is pursuing his hoop dreams. A high-school basketball star, he blew out his knee at the University of Houston before his freshman season. Thirteen years later, Miller has built a little Bay Area record store called No Limit into a $200 million empire of hip-hop music, film, video and fashion, and a growing sports-management agency. But in his heart, he'd rather be balling. ""I was playing basketball before I was doing music,'' he says, after practice in a drab Indiana Tech gym. ""It's just that I was poor and had no money, and the music thing worked out. If basketball had worked out, I'd be jumping into music right now.'' As a handful of curious African-American teens watch from the wings, Miller waxes unshakably confident about his basketball prospects. His goal: ""All the way to the NBA.''

There is little glamour in the life of a minor-league basketball player--even one who, as Fury co-owner Jay Frye notes, ""could buy the whole league if he wanted to.'' P, as his teammates call him, carries his own bags and waits in line for his $15 per diems on the road. ""I need that,'' he laughs. ""Every little bit helps.'' His presence hasn't boosted attendance in this overwhelmingly white city, and the team sometimes has to accommodate his schedule. After the Connecticut game, for example, he left temporarily to shoot a movie. He travels with a few No Limit friends, but for a celebrity of his status, he is remarkably inconspicuous. ""He's not this big rap star here,'' says coach Keith Smart. ""He's just a guy trying to make the team.'' Smart praises Miller's work ethic but admits that ""he has a long way to go. He's got to learn the pro game, not the street game.''

Against Connecticut, P bounces back from his defensive lapses, hitting a couple of jump shots. ""He's got great size, good speed and long arms,'' says B. J. Johnson, scouting the game for the NBA's Houston Rockets. ""Some [NBA team] could bring him in, you never know.'' A group of 13 white kids, down from Hillsdale, Mich., cheers him on. They all wear Master P jerseys. ""In Hillsdale,'' says one, ""he's the man.'' P finishes with 10 points, his high for the season. At his age, the NBA is a long shot. But as Johnson says, ""I'm pulling for him. You can't tell a guy to stop dreaming.'' Especially one who has already made many of his dreams come true. Miller

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