Gyms packed with adoring and despising fans followed Sammy Wade to every game, and for good reason. The Pueblo High School basketball star was maybe the most flamboyant one-on-one player in recent Tucson history.
But Sammy’s most talked about high school exploit didn’t occur on the basketball court, but rather in a parking lot.
During the second half of a game against Sunnyside 15 years ago, Sammy was informed that his beloved tires and 13-inch rims had been looted.
In the street world, rims were the ultimate sign of status. Most kids would be devastated by the loss.
This affront usually meant retaliation or submission. For Wade, neither response was an option. A snickering Sammy rolled into Pueblo 36 hours later showcasing the same Cadillac, this time residing on 15-inch gold Dayton rims.
“That was Sammy to a tee there,” said his high school friend, Brian Hackworth. “Take my rims, they mean more to you than me. Nobody comes back literally the next day with more expensive rims.”
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Sammy now lives in New Orleans and is known by the stage name Supa Blanco. “Suupe” has yet to make it big despite spending much of the past 10 years writing and spewing out rap lyrics in studios throughout the South.
Many wonder if he regrets leaving the city where his exploits became legendary, or breaking away from one of the icons of rap and the posh life it entails.
He doesn’t. The rapper with the New Orleans Saints logo tattooed across his left cheek has never been about conforming to societal norms.
And his act started on Tucson’s southeast side. Never seen without a basketball tethering in and out of his grasp, the diminutive Sammy spent long hours honing his craft and, by the fifth grade, owned a reputation at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base gym as a youngster with crazy dribbling moves.
Yet his act would never hit the Tucson middle school basketball courts. He would spend those years with his mother in the merciless New Orleans East neighborhood.
These years consisted of playing basketball and socializing with his brothers and friends. But there were constant distractions, and Sammy longed for his home city where he could focus on hoops. By the end of eighth grade, he decided to leave his mother and brothers and head back to Tucson.
Although he could have passed for a sixth-grader, the rail-thin Sammy entered Santa Rita High School with an exorbitant collection of glistening earrings, necklaces and a gaudy assortment of jewels. Before long, the freshman would get his first tattoo, a fiery basketball beneath his mother’s etched in name spanning his left leg.
Far from just a glitter-covered youth, Sammy personified flash on the court.
Equipped with pogo-stick leaping ability and an unrivaled ability to get his opponent off balance, he was nearly impossible for even the quickest of defenders to contain.
By the end of his sophomore season, Sammy was one of the best players in the city.
But it didn’t matter that Santa Rita coach Jim Ferguson would go down as one of the preeminent point guard coaches in city history; his slow-it-down style wasn’t for Sammy.
Despite the pleas from his mother, Sammy, in consultation with his AAU coach, was about to spearhead the most talked about mass transfer in city history.
Wade would register as living at his grandmother’s south-side residence in order to play with junior sharpshooter Jeff Clark at Pueblo. The most talented player in the city, Tucson High junior forward Hakim Rasul would transfer to Pueblo as well.
“I wasn’t going to switch if it wasn’t for Sammy,” said Rasul. “Being able to play with him and Jeff was something too big to pass up. We were going to be a huge deal.”
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Sammy’s father was one of the most notorious figures on Tucson’s south-side streets. And he would make sure his son stood out.
On his first day at Pueblo, Sammy entered the gated school parking lot navigating an unblemished burgundy 1974 Cadillac, with plush white leather seats and glistening 13-inch gold tire rims. Because of the grittier street elements surrounding the Pueblo area, there were those who advised against flaunting such flashy possessions, but Wade would look good wherever he went.
Many times, his living accommodations were just as lavish. When he wasn’t residing at best friend and teammate Clarence “Bam” McRae’s house, Sammy was partying at one of his rented hotel rooms.
Wade still focused on the court; he found a carefree adviser in Barry O’Rourke, Pueblo’s gregarious coach who led the Warriors to the state title game in 1983 and died at 55 in 2006. O’Rourke let Sammy go one-on-one each possession.
All of Wade’s talents came out in Sierra Vista Buena’s gym in a February 1998 game. The Colts’ fans are notorious for riding visiting players and immediately focused on Sammy.
Either he couldn’t hear them, or it didn’t matter.
“He was big on using his wiggle to get his shot off, but he didn’t need that this game,” said McRae, now the head football coach at Mountain View. “He was making everything.
“Situations like that, where he could stand out, were what he lived for. The crowd had no clue they were fueling him.”
By the end of the game, Wade had converted a junior state-record 10 three-pointers, on his way to 50 points.
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But it wasn’t a seamless ride for Sammy or Pueblo. The Warriors were vulnerable against well-drilled, talented teams.
Pueblo finished 21-8 in 1998, but a long, athletic and well-schooled Mesa Mountain View squad exposed the limits of one-on-one basketball in the Class 5A state tournament, winning 84-54.
Nevertheless, Sammy’s decision to transfer paid off as he was one of the city’s top scorers and an emerging legend. With four juniors and a sophomore returning the next season, the Warriors figured to be preseason favorites to win state.
In that summer of 1998, Wade traveled back to New Orleans to discover the surroundings hadn’t changed, but one of his de facto family members, a peanut-sized, aspiring rapper called Lil Wayne, was on the verge of becoming a worldwide rap star.
The teenage musician had many of the flashy accommodations Sammy did, except Wayne had more. Wayne now had a diamond encrusted mouth grill. And so Sammy flew back to Tucson for his senior year with a $1,500 gold grill covering his lower teeth.
Pueblo’s exploits during his senior only added to the flash: Rasul’s dunk show was indefensible; Clark was nearly automatic from long range, but it was Sammy packing the gym.
“Nobody had talent or sizzle like us,” Wade said. “We were different because we were black, with the swagger and just attacked you on the court.”
But Sammy’s high school hoops career would end in heartbreaking fashion. In a back-and-forth 1999 second-round 5A state playoff game against Tempe Corona del Sol, he succumbed to a tendency to over-dribble. The Warriors lost 63-62.
The defeat appeared to be a temporary setback, as Sammy served notice the following season at Scottsdale Community College that he was a legitimate Division I prospect.
He would never play again.
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That spring, Sammy received word from Lil Wayne, currently heading to Las Vegas on a mega West Coast rap tour, about a job opening. Selling his beloved Cadillac for a fraction of the value, Sammy was in Sin City by the end of the week. In short time, he was Lil Wayne’s road manager.
To many, Sammy had made it. By 2004, he was regularly rubbing elbows with some of the biggest stars of the entertainment world, no material possession was beyond his means. But Wade was never one to blend into the backdrop, no matter how lavish the set up.
In 2004, he thanked Wayne for the experience and set out on his own.
Much like when he first went solo 10 years ago, Sammy spends long hours rhyming and manipulating sound devices, striving to thrust his name into the mainstream consciousness of the rap world.
His fabled Tucson exploits are now a memory.
“My only goal now is to become a legend in the rap game,” he says. “But if I don’t, no regrets. My entire life I’ve done what I wanted when I wanted. How many people can say that?”