PHILADELPHIA — The elevator from the owners’ lounge was too small, but Michael Rubin told everyone to cram in anyway.
Game 3 between the Philadelphia 76ers, the team in which he shares ownership, and the Boston Celtics was about to begin at Wells Fargo Center . The entourage consisted of former NFL running back Tiki Barber, Mehmet Oz, better known as “Dr. Oz,” and his wife, as well as selfie-seekers who took advantage of this moment with a football and TV star. But one VIP was missing.
Rubin squeezed out and wove to his courtside seat on a mission.
“Where is he?” Rubin asked into his phone.
He was looking for Meek Mill, the popular Philadelphia-born rapper and one of Rubin’s “close friends.” The artist, who was released from a Pennsylvania state prison April 24, is also an avatar for the young and rising Sixers who are claiming a stake in a city where basketball blends with a blue-collar ethos.
On the surface, the relationship between the 45-year-old billionaire sports owner and the hip-hop artist who wrote “Dreams and Nightmares” — a hit song that became the soundtrack of the Philadelphia Eagles during their successful pursuit of the Super Bowl title — seems like an odd pairing. Especially when Rubin casually tells stories of sharing a private jet with Meek Mill and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft en route to an NBA All-Star Weekend. And yet, their bond makes perfect sense in Philadelphia.
“From a basketball perspective, Meek is the heart and soul,” Rubin said of the rapper whose birth name is Robert Rihmeek Williams. “He’s a big part of the team. . . . He’s part of the culture of this team. These guys love him.”
Meek Mill’s roots with the Sixers run deep.
His video for the song “House Party” was shot at former Sixers guard Lou Williams’s estate. When the franchise was in the throes of The Process on Jan. 14, 2016, he watched courtside with then-girlfriend Nicki Minaj when the Sixers blew a 24-point lead to the Chicago Bulls and stumbled to a 4-37 record. Last season, he campaigned on Twitter to gain all-star votes for center Joel Embiid.
The rapper said he has been a 76ers fan his “whole life.” But only a few old heads of the city remember his former life. The kid they used to know as Rihmeek played ball inside the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in North Philadelphia.
Young Rihmeek had height and a little jumper, recalled Ed Hurt, founder of the Youth Working Together basketball league who Meek Mill said “was like a father to all of us in the neighborhood.”
The young baller, whose own father was murdered when he was 5, wasn’t a superstar. Still, he could hold his own on the court.
“That’s the talent that people don’t know,” Hurt said. “Because very few people got to see him play basketball.”
Years later, Hurt heard Rihmeek in a rap freestyle and took him to record his first song. The father figure in Hurt didn’t care for the swear words, but he noticed the talent and became Meek Mill’s earliest promoter.
In 2010, Meek Mill’s two loves — hip-hop and Philly hoops — collided at the Chosen League, a well-known summer event featuring the top players in the city. As an unsigned artist, he played halftime at their all-star game. Before the set, he thanked the league’s founder, Rahim Thompson, for the opportunity.
“‘I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to perform here again,’” Meek Mill told Thompson.
That passion has led to a successful mainstream music career for Meek Mill, rife with fame, feuds (with Drake) and a friendship with the owner of his favorite team.
Rubin had never heard of Meek Mill when the two were seated next to each other at the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York. He also knew very little about parole, so when that courtside conversation sparked a relationship and the two started hanging out, Rubin didn’t understand why Meek Mill couldn’t go to a nearby casino.
In 2008, Meek Mill was convicted on gun and drug charges and served eight months. After his release, he remained on probation, which limited his freedom to travel.
“I started to get a real disbelief in what was happening,” Rubin said. “It started to really bother me. So, I started trying to find out if there was a way I could get help for a solution.”
In November, Rubin could not help Meek Mill from a prison sentence stemming from parole violation.
Rubin attended court to support his friend. As he pleaded with Judge Genece E. Brinkley, he noticed the police officers entering the room and getting into position. When Brinkley read the sentence, two to four years in prison, Rubin’s eyes got watery.
“I had an out-of-body reaction,” Rubin described. “I looked at [Meek Mill], I’m like, ‘I’m not stopping until you’re out of jail . . . . Period. End of story. This is just wrong.’ ”
Rubin and a host of celebrities and protesters argued that the length of Meek Mill’s parole — nearly a decade — and the sentence were unjust. In Philadelphia, Meek Mill became a movement and Rubin helped mobilize support. He called his partner with the Sixers, Josh Harris, who pledged his help. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pledged his support of Rubin serving as a public advocate for the rapper.
Rubin visited the prison about 20 times, enlisting Embiid and Sixers teammates Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz to come along. After Rubin spent three days in Turks and Caicos on a couples retreat with his girlfriend along with Kraft and his girlfriend, the New England Patriots owner requested to visit Meek Mill, too.
“I would have never put all my support — nor would Jay-Z or Roc Nation put all their support behind him, and all the people that I brought into this — if I wasn’t sure that he was somebody we could be confident [in],” Rubin said. “He was completely screwed by a completely broken criminal justice system.”
The day the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted Meek Mill bail, Rubin called him and exclaimed, “I’m picking you up in the heli!”
Meek Mill walked out of jail around 6:45 p.m. He landed at Harris’s casino near Wells Fargo Center. He shaved, showered and shed his prison clothes for an Embiid jersey. Then, he rang the ceremonial bell before the Sixers’ first-round Game 5 clincher over the Miami Heat.
“Everything he did for the Sixers during the dark time, it was like really the perfect story,” Thompson said of Meek Mill being released and making it to the Sixers’ win. “It was like a fairy tale. It was like a hood fairy tale. Like, that’s a legendary story that will always be in the history of Philadelphia sports.”
On Saturday night, Meek Mill’s entrance wasn’t as dramatic but still pushed close to tip-off. Minutes before the national anthem, Meek Mill strolled in, his blue jean jacket rolled up and four glittery chains hanging around his neck.
Meek Mill and Rubin sat side by side in their front-row seats during the game. Then, they stood together, like the rest of the sold-out arena, as the game went into overtime. When Marco Belinelli gave the Sixers a two-point lead to begin the extra period, the rapper pantomimed making a jumper of his own. But when Belinelli couldn’t connect with a potential game-tying three at the buzzer, Meek Mill turned away from the court. It was time to leave, but first he found Rubin. The friends embraced.
“It’s amazing to be in my home town and support the team. Fresh home,” Meek Mill said. “I’m super happy I’m home, but I’m actually happy to be at the Sixers game celebrating, too.”