Michael Bivins turned 52 years old on Tuesday (Aug 10). The product of Boston’s Orchard Park projects showed his seamless transition game when he went from the playgrounds of Boston to becoming a member of the groundbreaking group New Edition to managing and producing Boyz II Men to founding the hit-making trio Bell Biv DeVoe.
Boys II Men made history when they achieved #1 status on Billboards Top 100 for 13 weeks with the 1992 song End of the Road, breaking a record that Elvis Presley held for 36 years. With their $60 million in record sales, to go along with his BBD and New Edition certified platinum status, Mikes’s impact on music and pop culture has reached far and wide for close to 40 years.
An official triple-threat as a baller, singer and producer with the numbers and the hood credibility to back it up, Biv’s precedent-setting imprint on urban cultural style and its translation into the mainstream remains understated, yet powerful.
He sat down for a wide-ranging conversation with me a few years back, exploring the foundation of his essence – the hoops culture that nourished his dreams and took his life trajectory from project kid to renaissance man.
I’m dusting off some of that conversation for your enjoyment as we celebrate his birthday and accomplishments and giving you the inside scoop on how the game of basketball was responsible for the formation of one of the greatest groups ever in the history of music.
How important was playing ball on the playground to you as a kid growing up in the Orchard Park projects?
When we were young, we couldnt get on the court because the older kids stayed out there, so we had to resort to playing on the crates. Between buildings, it seemed as long as a football field but we’d run fullcourt, from one crate to another. When people would get off their bus coming home from school, youd see a bunch of jackets and bags dropped on the ground, no matter how cold it was. Thats what we had to do, play ball, before we went in the crib.
So when were you able to get some burn with the older kids?
When I was about eight years old, I started playing with the 13-and-under kids. I didn’t get any run, but I was hyped to be a part of the team, to be in the layup line, or to get in the game with 30 seconds left if we were up big. I guess the coaches saw something in my dribble to think I was cool enough to get a jersey. And I cherished my uniform.
What were some of the parks you guys would go to, other than the court you played at in Orchard Park?
Well, let me give you the origin of basketball in Orchard Park. One side of the projects never had a basketball court. The side closest to Adams Street, that we called The Other Side, had a court in the middle of the park which was near Dearborn Middle School. Our side of the projects was split in half, what we called Up from the Speed Bump and Down from the Speed Bump. We didn’t have a court on my side. We were like, We’ve got all this space, and we ain’t got no court! So, we went over to Madison Park High School, when it was first built, and stole their rims and backboards.
How did yall do that?
We unscrewed them and about 20 of us walked all the way back to Orchard Park with them. It was crazy! Some of the older guys took these long, skinny poles and got some cement from the Boston Housing Authority. We dug our own holes, cemented them and put the Madison park backboards up. Then we got some spray paint and painted The Trailblazers right in the middle of the court. And that was our spot. We made our own court in the projects.
So were the guys who lived on the other side envious?
The cats that lived on the other side of the speed bump, they did the same thing with the space in between their buildings. So, we’d walk 20 yards, play against a different set of buildings, and call that an away game. Then, they’d walk 20 yards over to our buildings and that would be their away game. When people would walk through the projects to catch their bus at Dudley Station, it would look like there was this league going on, but it was just some kids, from building to building, playing against each other.
So, did the word get out and other teams start showing up to get down?
We started inviting other teams from Mount Pleasant, Forest Street, Copeland and some other places. Before you knew it, word was spreading around the city. It was project against project, street against street. And the games became scheduled. It was better than any league in the city because both sides of the court were crowded with your people from your hood. We had the table, the clock, the officials, and it was streetball at its finest.
In the earliest New Edition videos, it was apparent that ball was a big part of your lives.
We all played ball at the Orchard Park Rec Center growing up. Wed all met in the gym, around basketball, and it was important that we showed that part of ourselves in the videos because that’s who we really were. So when we got in the music business, it was as much a part of us as singing was. When we werent on stage, we were playing ball.
So is it safe to say that the game gave birth to the incredible phenomenon that became New Edition?
In essence, the synergy of the recreation center was responsible for New Edition, and basketball was a huge part of that. Before the national AAU scene blew up, the Boston Shootout was legendary in the 70s and 80s, where all the top players from around the country came to play and represent their cities.
Were you at those games?
A guy named Claude Pritchard saw me and a couple of other kids playing on the courts in Orchard Park and said we needed to come down to the Boys Club. It was about ten minutes from the projects, but we never considered spending money for a membership when we could play outside for free. He bought us our first membership, and it just so happened that the Roxbury Boys Club was a sponsor of the Boston Shootout. At 9 and 10 years old, I had a game that stood out, so that led to me meeting the Director and other influential people that came in the gym, which led to them making me a ball boy at the Boston Shootout.
So that was your first job?
Yeah, that was my first little job, but I wasn’t the lower tier ball boy, I was in charge of the other ball boys.
So you’ve been running things, on the leadership tip, from day one. What are your favorite memories of the Shootout?
In my third year, they did something very special and let some youth teams play a game at halftime of the championship game. It was two eight-minute quarters, running time. Yo! I was 11 years old, playing at Boston University, at halftime of the Boston Shootout championship game, and I got MVP. That was big! Then I changed up and went back to work as a ball boy on the bench.
So when you were a ball boy as a kid, who were some of the players that made you say, Oh Snap!?
I remember when Doc Rivers played for the Chicago team, and they had Windy City” across their jerseys. He could fly like a bird and was a guard that was dunking on everybody. That was one exciting team. I remember Pearl Washington playing for the New York team, before he played at Syracuse. I remember Patrick Ewing playing for Boston. Those teams looked like pro teams in high school. Yeah man, I remember all of that, and how much anticipation there was in the city for that tournament.
What were some of the lessons you learned playing ball that remain embedded in your business philosophy today?
Man, that’s a great question. When I’m on the court, I want the ball. I want to call the play and be creative enough to make something happen. I was an inclusive player that included everybody. I might not have had the best jump shot, but I could dribble my tail off and get you the ball. So, in music and with my group, I take the same attitude and vision, like Give me the ball and let me make the deal.
You guys are a collection of separate individuals with unique talents and a phenomenal combo when all the pieces coalesce: a musical and entertainment force that resonates across generations. If you could compare New Edition to any basketball team, who would it be and why?
It would have to be the University of Michigans Fab Five, because were the most exciting conglomeration of talent that never got our just do: Grammys, lifetime achievement awards, etc. But we were a force who brought about a lot of musical and stylistic trends that endure to this day.
Happy Birthday, Biv. Keep bangin’!!!