NOT SURPRISINGLY for a singer known for his romantic ballads, Brian McKnight scores a lot.
And he's not averse to bragging about it.
He had "27 points, six assists, six rebounds," McKnight reported recently from Los Angeles, where the night before he had played his last game with the ABA's Ontario Warriors before heading out on the road in support of his recent "Gemini" album.
Basketball is more than a hobby for the 6-foot-4 guard, who also plays with the Miami Heat in the NBA's closed-to-the-public Entertainment League alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, Will Ferrell, Ice Cube, Don Cheadle and Justin Timberlake, whom McKnight sang with a few years back on the hit "My Kind of Girl."
Heat teammates include "Desperate Housewives" hottie Jesse Metcalfe, Esai Morales and Bill Bellamy. In that league's finals a few weeks back, McKnight hit a three-pointer with seven seconds left to send the game into overtime and another three to help claim his third NBAE ring in eight seasons.
"I love playing in that league," said McKnight, who was league MVP in 2001 and its leading scorer in 2001. But, he noted, the ABA competition is definitely stronger, with a lot of overseas players.
"The guys I was playing with pretty much all make their living from playing basketball, and those [ABA] leagues are really more about trying to be recruited," he said. "They're not really getting paid anything, but there's always guys around, agents, watching these guys playing."
And even at age 35 (36 on Sunday), McKnight hopes to catch a pro scout's eye with his apparently considerable moves.
"It's still the only dream I have. Some guys dream about women or cars. I have all that," McKnight said, laughing. "Every night, I dream about playing in the NBA. It's not going to happen, but I can still dream."
Call it "One Last Try."
That, of course, refers to "One Last Cry," the chart-topper that announced McKnight's arrival in the pop game in 1992. He has had success there, too, with 16 million records sold, shelves full of awards and numerous production and writing credits.
McKnight, who was born in Buffalo but raised in Orlando, comes from a musical family whose best-known other member is older brother Claude McKnight, founder of Take 6, an a capella gospel ensemble. At 15, McKnight started playing local jazz clubs (penciling on a mustache to appear older) while also playing at church. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew how to play nine instruments.
Still, he said, "I kind of got thrust into being an artist when that wasn't my sole purpose. All I wanted to do was write songs and have people sing my songs. Then when people started hearing the demos, they asked who was singing them.
"I'd say, 'That's me.' And they'd say, 'Let's talk about a record deal.' Nine records later, here we are."
Nine records earlier, McKnight was at Oakwood College in Alabama, where he would eventually get kicked out for having a girl in his room. By then, the prospects of a recording career were becoming clearer.
"When people wanted to come down and hear me showcase, that's when I started thinking this may be an actual possibility."
Not that success was immediate. McKnight said he "worked hard for years trying to get that record out. From the first record to a million, it took three years; five years from signing to platinum."
After a slow start with "The Way Love Goes" and "Love Is," a duet with Vanessa Williams, his eponymous debut album begat "One Last Cry," a teary ballad that, with "Back at One," remains one of McKnight's signature songs and a favorite of "American Idol" contestants -- talented and not-so.
In fact, McKnight may be the only one who doesn't cringe at transformations visited upon those songs by some of "Idol's" more impossible dreamers.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I love it, whether it's wonderful or not so great.
"It tells you there are people out there, whether they are extremely music talented or not, that appreciate what you do. At this moment, which is the biggest moment of their lives that will get them to their dreams, they're choosing your song to try and sing, and it's amazing. Even karaoke -- to hear people and they don't know you're there, you just happen to be at the bowling alley when they're doing karaoke night -- it feels great."
Still, McKnight said he worries about the future.
"When they start having 'American Idol' for rappers, all that other kind of stuff will be over," he said. "Right now people still have to sing on 'American Idol,' so they have to try to sing songs that will showcase what they can do, and you have to go back to some real songs. Unfortunately, most of the people who are making records now don't go through that process."
Though McKnight complains that "rap has taken the singer right off the radio," several rappers appear on "Gemini." Talib Kweli joins McKnight and Musiq on "She" and Juvenile shows up on "Watcha Gonna Do?" and McKnight has recorded with Nate Dogg and Nelly. But most of the album is, as another song puts it, "Grown Man Business," dealing with familiar themes of love and heartbreak and, in McKnight's case, life after divorce.
A couple of years ago, McKnight and the college sweetheart he married at age 20 divorced after 13 years. They have two children. Much of his previous album, the sometimes downcast "U Turn," was about that experience. "Gemini" is about a future that includes the naughty backstage banter of "What We Do Here" (stays here, basically) and the yearning "Every Time You Go Away."
"My theme for this tour, for myself, is a peek into the life of the 30-something, recently divorced, single -- you can emphasize that if you want to," he said, laughing, "relatively successful male. That's what it's about, and that's what this album is about."
While McKnight's early albums were exercises in craft -- he said he has written more than 2,000 songs in the past 15 years -- the last three, starting with 2001's "Superhero," have "all been autobiographical one way or another." Even 1999's "Back at One" was inspired both by his failing marriage and a DVD programming instruction that counseled that "if you make a mistake, go back to step one." McKnight simply transferred that advice to romantic relationships.
"If you look at 'Gemini,' there's even stuff autobiographical from before," he said. "A song like 'Here With You,' it's a junior high sort of memory of being at a house party, waiting for the last song and you finally get to rub up against somebody. All those memories from childhood through adolescence, certain things that happened when I was married, when I wish I wasn't married but I was. . . .
"There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek, sort of mysterious stuff I'm talking about that's masked in clever ways," McKnight said. "I try to write lyrics with a lot of double entendres. I always say I probably clever my way right off the radio when I do that, but it's the way that I am. So often people come up to me and say, 'I know what this song is about,' and I say, 'You have no idea what this song is about.' But when you start listening to it, you put your own situation and your own feel into that song, and that's really what it's about. People apply it to their own lives."
"Gemini," which mixes traditionally romantic tracks with more earthy explorations, is not what McKnight originally envisioned, which was a double CD for which he wrote 40 songs.
"There were a couple of different configurations I wanted to try," McKnight said, noting that his label, Motown Records, was undergoing management changes at the top and "didn't understand what it meant for an artist to be creative. What they told me was that putting two CDs in one package would be really expensive, though every other artist seems to do it, and that's a whole other long discussion.
"One configuration was a studio record right alongside a live record. Another was a full-on double record which explored every side of my duality, from the rock side, the jazz side, the R&B side, everything that I love to do, which I do all the time but people don't get to hear that much about because you don't know how people are going to take these other types of music."
Another configuration had one CD of R&B, a second of jazz. "There's a jazz record that's written but not recorded," McKnight said, adding that the "Gemini" track "Your Song" is a jazzy Nat King Cole Trio-type song with more of an R&B vocal than a true jazz version. He said he is planning a series of jazz records: "one Trio-esque, the way Nat did it, with no drummer, just piano, bass and guitar; another, more instrumental, a sextet like Miles Davis around 1959; a big-band record; and a configuration that I can't even really think about right now."
Let's see, that covers music and sports. Did we mention McKnight's television career?
Last fall, McKnight and singer Sheena Easton hosted "The Vegas Show," a regional morning talk show broadcast from the Golden Nugget Casino. (McKnight replaced former Washington-bred singer Clint Holmes.) Now, he said he hopes to spin the daytime show into a syndicated nighttime show.
"I didn't know it was something I wanted to do til I got that 'Vegas' gig," McKnight said, "but when I come off tour, that's going to be my number one concentration."
Meanwhile, he continues to be an occasional correspondent for the tabloid television show "Extra," as well as an occasional topic.
Asked whether Reporter McKnight would be "Extra"-hard on Singer McKnight, he laughed and said, "They're pretty good about covering me with one of the other correspondents.
"I think that what people appreciate with me coming as an artist is I kind of know what people want to talk about and what they want to stay away from," he said. "Unfortunately, when you're dealing with a newsmagazine show with a tabloid [approach], they want to talk about things celebrities don't want to talk about, so it's a fine line to walk. Most of the time it's about how you ask the question and how you bring it up that makes people want to talk to you."
BRIAN MCKNIGHT -- Appearing Friday and Saturday at DAR Constitution Hall with New Edition and Raheem DeVaughn.