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Inside the special bond between late rapper Nipsey Hussle and Texas Tech's Brandone Francis

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As the biggest basketball game of his son’s life tipped off last Saturday afternoon in Anaheim, Texas Tech guard Brandone Francis’ father kept glancing at the empty seat beside him, trying not to lose hope.

One day earlier, Bobby Francis had surprised Brandone by telling him to leave Nipsey Hussle two tickets to the Red Raiders’ Elite Eight matchup with Gonzaga. Now, the rapper had already missed the opening minutes of the game and wasn’t answering his phone.

“Inside I was shattered,” Bobby Francis said. “My son had bragged to all his teammates that his favorite rapper was coming. I felt like a fraud. I felt like I was letting him down.”

For Bobby and Brandone Francis, Nipsey Hussle was more than just a world-renowned rapper. He was a cherished family friend whose innovative tracks and generosity with his time helped mend a broken relationship between father and son.

Estranged for 13 years while Brandone grew up with his mother in the Dominican Republic and Bobby carved out a career in the U.S. as a brand strategist in the entertainment industry, father and son bonded over a mutual passion for Hussle’s music when they were reunited. Bobby’s relationship with Hussle and role in launching the career of such a legendary rapper gave him newfound credibility with his son.

Just when it seemed that Hussle definitely wasn’t going to show up to Saturday’s game, Bobby’s phone rang early in the first half. It was Hussle calling to say that he apologized for being late, he was fighting through traffic on the way to the arena and he’d be there by halftime.

The way Hussle yelled for Brandone when he arrived at the Honda Center, you’d have thought it was his own kid playing for a Final Four berth. French fries in one hand and a drink in the other, Hussle announced that Texas Tech was “taking this” to anyone within earshot when he got to his courtside seat and only got more animated as the Red Raiders pulled in front.

When Texas Tech players spilled onto the floor in celebration at the final buzzer, Hussle patted a teary-eyed Bobby on the back and shouted, “Big Bob, we going to the Final Four!” He later caught Brandone’s attention and yelled across the floor to congratulate him.

“Brandone looked at Nipsey like his idol was right in front of his face,” said Steve Lobel, Hussle’s first manager and another friend of the Francis family. “I don’t know why he didn’t jump over the railing to hug Nipsey.”

If Brandone had it to do over again, you can bet he’d do that. You can bet he’d have hurtled that railing, wrapped Hussle in a sweaty bearhug and never let go.

Because Hussle, 33, was shot and killed the very next afternoon in front of the Los Angeles clothing store that he owned, transforming what should be a triumphant week for Bobby and Brandone Francis into one that has reduced both father and son to a puddle of tears.

The night before he was shot to death, rapper Nipsey Hussle attended Texas Tech's Elite Eight game last Saturday to support family friend Brandone Francis. (Photo Illustration)
The night before he was shot to death, rapper Nipsey Hussle attended Texas Tech's Elite Eight game last Saturday to support family friend Brandone Francis. (Photo Illustration)

How Bobby Francis helped Nipsey Hussle ascend

The first time Bobby Francis met Nipsey Hussle, the young rapper had not yet blossomed into a Grammy nominee, a Los Angeles legend or a symbol of the possibilities in life.

In 2008, Hussle was only a few years removed from selling mixtapes out of the trunk of his car and had just begun to make a name for himself outside his South Los Angeles neighborhood. Not until that year did a major record label set aside concerns about Hussle’s ties to the Rollin 60’s Neighborhood Crips and take a chance on him.

“For a long time, nobody believed in him,” Lobel said. “We talked to every label, but they told us they didn’t like what he represented.”

Eager to help Hussle differentiate himself from other up-and-coming Los Angeles rappers, Lobel suggested his client meet with Francis for branding advice. Francis soon became a friend and mentor to Hussle, ingratiating himself with timely suggestions that helped pave the way for the rapper’s gradual ascent.

When Hussle began to generate buzz after the 2008 release of his Bullets Ain’t Got No Name mixtape series, comparisons to a young Snoop Dogg soon followed. From Hussle’s braided hair, to his blue attire, to his lanky physique, to his effortless flow, the similarities were so obvious that producers of the movie “All Eyez on Me” even originally asked him to play the role of Snoop.

Aware that Hussle was an ardent Los Angeles Lakers fan, Francis used a Kobe Bryant-Michael Jordan analogy to show the rapper why he needed to be wary of the Snoop 2.0 label. Francis pointed out that players who emulate Jordan’s game and chase his records will always endure unflattering comparisons to the Chicago Bulls legend.

“It’s the same thing as an artist,” Francis told Hussle. “If you do that as an artist, you’ll always be overshadowed. You have to think independently. You have to build your brand.”

A few years later, after Hussle had already begun to forge his own identity as a socially conscious revolutionary with rap as his chosen medium, the artist again came to Francis for advice. He was ready to release a new mixtape that he believed would resonate with his core fans, but he sought a way to have it make a splash with a mainstream audience.

When Francis urged Hussle to read a book called “Contagious” that helps explain why certain products and ideas become popular, the rapper came back intrigued by the tale of a $100 Philly cheesesteak. The price of the sandwich attracted curious customers from around the world, including celebrities like Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey.

In an era when the value of recorded music has sunk to an all-time low, Hussle and Francis audaciously concocted a plan to sell 1,000 hard copies of the mixtape for $100 apiece at a pop-up shop in Los Angeles. Fans who bought the limited-edition mixtape would receive special perks, from autographs and memorabilia, to phone calls from Hussle, to tickets to an exclusive show at an intimate venue.

“When we made that decision, Steve was looking at me like, ‘You better hope it works,’ ” Francis said. “I’ll be honest with you — I was so scared.”

Much to Francis’ relief, the scheme didn’t backfire. Hussle sold all 1,000 copies, 100 of which Jay-Z famously purchased. Instead of being mocked for his hubris in the mainstream media, Hussle was hailed as a shrewd entrepreneur.

It was the break he needed to reach a bigger audience, including a Dominican teenager trying to adjust to an unfamiliar language and culture.

Nipsey Hussle poses with Bobby Francis and former manager Steve Lobel last Saturday at the Texas Tech-Gonzaga Elite Eight game. (via Bobby Francis)
Nipsey Hussle poses with Bobby Francis and former manager Steve Lobel last Saturday at the Texas Tech-Gonzaga Elite Eight game. (via Bobby Francis)

How Nipsey Hussle helped repair father-son bond

One year after Brandone Francis left the Dominican Republic in search of stronger basketball competition in the United States, the high school sophomore approached his father with a very pressing question.

“Dad,” Brandone said, “Have you ever heard of Nipsey Hussle?”

The irony of the question wasn’t the only reason it drew a sly smile from Brandone’s dad. Bobby Francis also recognized he had a chance to do something special for Brandone and perhaps take a small step toward mending their fractured relationship.

Rather than regale his son with stories about the rapper, Bobby dug his phone out of his pocket and FaceTimed Hussle on the spot. Shocked and starstruck, Brandone spent the next few minutes chatting with Hussle.

“Nipsey made me cool to my son,” Bobby Francis said. “He made me reputable. He made me honest. He made my son trust me. That conversation is what started the process of healing between me and my son.”

From that day forward, Hussle became more than a rapper to Brandone Francis. He was an idol, a big brother.

Hussle would send Brandone video shout-outs on his birthday and text or FaceTime with him sporadically. The rapper would also always ask how Brandone’s basketball season was going anytime he spoke with Bobby.

Listening to Hussle’s albums was one of the main methods Brandone used to improve his English during high school. He’d even emulate how Hussle spoke, a source of endless amusement for Bobby since there was nothing hardscrabble about Brandone’s upbringing.

“He’s not loyal to any artist the way he is Nipsey Hussle,” Bobby Francis said.

That’s why it was so meaningful to Bobby when Hussle took time out of his busy schedule to come support Brandone in Anaheim this past weekend.

Hussle couldn’t come to Texas Tech’s Sweet 16 rout of Michigan, but he FaceTimed with Bobby during that game. Then he made his fashionably late entrance on Saturday, providing a haunting but lasting memory for all who interacted with him.

“He loves basketball. That’s his favorite thing,” Brandone Francis said. “It was amazing for him to put everything aside, the meetings and music videos, and take the time to come support me and my teammates. That’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll probably tell my kids that someday.”

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 30: Brandone Francis #1 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders celebrates as he walks off the court after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at Honda Center on March 30, 2019 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Brandone Francis celebrates as he walks off the court after defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs. (Getty Images)

‘My heart felt like 1,000 pounds right down to my feet’

For Bobby Francis, the eeriest part of Hussle’s death isn’t even that he spent a few hours with the rapper the previous day.

That pales in comparison to being at the site of Hussle’s alleged murder just an hour or two before it happened.

Last Sunday afternoon, Bobby dropped by the Marathon Clothing Shop to buy some souvenirs to bring to Minneapolis for his son. He only missed seeing Hussle by a few minutes.

Not long after that, Bobby received a flurry of text messages from friends that Hussle had been shot. When close friend and record producer L.T. Hutton told him that Hussle is “not doing good,” that’s when Bobby broke down amid the realization that he had likely seen his friend for the final time.

“My heart felt like 1,000 pounds right down to my feet,” Bobby said.

In addition to his personal relationship with Hussle, among the toughest aspects of this for Bobby is that the rapper still had so much left to give to his community. Hussle realized what could be done by reinvesting rap money in his South Los Angeles neighborhood, buying a shopping plaza, a burger restaurant, a fish market and a barbershop, financing repairs for neighborhood parks and basketball courts and donating shoes to students in an elementary school.

Like his dad, it also waylaid Brandone when he found out from a teammate on Sunday evening that one of his heroes was dead.

“I got very sad, very emotional,” he said.

At first Brandone wasn’t sure if he was emotionally prepared to play a basketball game on Saturday against Michigan State, but his dad told him it’s what Hussle would have wanted. To prove it, Bobby encouraged Brandone to listen to one verse in particular from one of Hussle’s most recent songs.

Grammy nominated, in the sauna sheddin' tears

All this money, power, fame and I can't make you reappear

But I don't wipe 'em though

We just embrace the only life we know

If it was me, I would tell you, "N——, live your life and grow"

I'd tell you, "Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?

So Brandone will try to “reach them heights” on Saturday against Michigan State. He intends to listen to Hussle’s music before the game, scrawl a message to the rapper on his sneakers and then try to honor his fallen friend with his performance on the floor.

“It’s a little bittersweet moment for me being here,” Francis said. “Probably one of the most special times in my life but at the same time I lost one of my favorite people.”

Were Hussle still alive, he had planned to be in Minneapolis on Saturday, seated alongside Bobby and cheering his heart out for Brandone.

Now that seat will be vacant instead.

Nipsey Hussle and Bobby Francis have been friends for more than a decade. (photo via Bobby Francis)
Nipsey Hussle and Bobby Francis have been friends for more than a decade. (photo via Bobby Francis)

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