They still got game

CL hangs out with the hard-pimpin' hosts - of the notorious Players Ball

Archbishop Don "Magic" Juan rolls another fattie as he muses about the sad state of his former occupation: "Most of the guys who say they're pimps, they're living in their mother's basement."

The Bishop, as his fellow players and fans call him, has shed the white, floor-length mink coat and green, rhinestone-encrusted, Elton John-style sunglasses he'd worn an hour earlier during his appearance at the World's Famous Players Ball. Back in his hotel suite, he turns his attention to the mound of hi-test ganja in front of him, seemingly oblivious to the raucous game of craps going on at the far end of the long table at which he's seated.

Half a dozen women occupy two nearby couches, most watching a videotape of a previous Players Ball, while some of the Bishop's traveling companions mill about, sipping Hennessy out of gold-plated mugs and striking the occasional pose. Slumped in a chair still wearing his mink coat and matching fur-covered fedora is a large man with "JuJu" monogrammed onto his lapel; a large, gold goblet on the floor between his feet bears the word "pimp." Asked if he is, indeed, a pimp, JuJu pauses a moment and drowsily answers, "I call myself a businessman," before nodding off.

Kilo for kilo, there seems to be less debauchery going on at this gaudy gathering of pimps than at the average frat party.

It's 3 a.m. on what seems a typical night on the road for the Bishop and his crew of players, hustlers and hangers-on. A short while earlier, they had wrapped up a group gig at Club Mirage in Decatur, where several hundred people braved the cold weather, All-Star traffic jams and the censure of local church leaders to stand in line and pay up to $200 for VIP tickets to party with the big-name pimps.

The Saturday-night event had gone off with only a single arrest despite weathering a week's worth of bad press and attracting a few dozen sidewalk protesters and the close scrutiny of DeKalb police. As is usually the case in such circumstances, the notoriety seemed only to boost ticket sales.

As its critics charged, the Players Ball was technically guilty of glorifying guys who make illicit livings sexually exploiting women. Yet, as these grown men with such names as Good Game, Dr. Magic, Robert Money and Minister Seamore strutted around in outlandish, candy-hued suits, dropping pimp-speak aphorisms like, "If it don't make dollars, it don't make sense," it was difficult to imagine how the arrival of these wise-cracking cartoon characters in their white, triple-stretch Ford Excursion could possibly have caused the fuss that it did. Unless, that is, one was mindful of the fact that the Bishop's authorized biography boasts that he often used violence to keep his women in line during his 13 years in the business. Instead, the Players Ball had the air of a nostalgic celebration of the fashions and attitude of a bygone lifestyle that had long been stripped of its real-life menace by Hollywood and Madison Avenue.

According to Minister Seamore, whose white mink coat is set off by bright purple fur epaulettes, street pimpin' in the classic sense has been killed off by crack and the Internet. "You can't put girls on the corner now," he explains. "They either get hooked on drugs, or they get online and go into business for themselves."

Arguably the county's best-known pimp since Iceberg Slim, Bishop Don Juan has been formally retired from "the Game" since 1985, when he claims to have turned to the Lord and begun "pimpin' for Jesus." But the Bishop's particular brand of spirituality isn't apparent to the untrained eye, unless it's an unorthodox strain of bling-bling Rastafarianism. His crew's only outward display of religiosity comes in their constant use of the word "church," exclaimed apparently as an all-purpose greeting and commentary, much as "dude" is used in slacker circles.

The Bishop's explanation doesn't clear up the confusion: "It's like saying, 'God bless you,' but you can't get players and hip-hop artists to say, 'Bless you,' so we say 'church.'"

Back at the hotel suite, his colleagues are happy to answer questions about their lifestyle. "There are only a few pimps in the room," Robert Money confides. "The rest of us are players." And what, exactly, is the distinction? "To be a player, you gotta be in the game." Um, thanks.

In his blue satin suit, matching hat and mustache, the light-skinned Money resembles Ron O'Neal from the title role of Superfly. He explains that a custom-made drinking vessel is an essential part of a player's wardrobe. "This one cost $1,000," he says, hefting a gaudy, 24-carat gold-plated tankard with letters somewhat superfluously spelling out "Money."

Swaying slightly, Good Game, draped in what he terms "butterscotch mink," is feeling sentimental: "I want you to let people know that, eight years ago, the Bishop saved my life." By getting you out of pimping? "No, by getting me into pimping," he says. "I was in the business of selling drugs and beating people up." And they say the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Rising from his seat, where he's been smoking his blunt by sticking it into his nostril, the Bishop goes to the boom box and repeatedly plays part of an R. Kelly remix song that mentions him by name. He explains that his friend, rapper Snoop Dogg, who was to have co-hosted the Players Ball in Decatur, had been unable to join the group because he'd gotten stuck in downtown traffic.

But Snoop will have other chances. This week, the gang will reconvene in the Bishop's old stomping grounds of Chicago to headline another Players Ball. Next month, promoters in L.A. will pay to bring the Bishop and his fellow ex-macks to that city for another such gathering of old-school pimping talent. After that, Money says, it's off to Miami.

To hear him describe the circuit, you might be inclined to think Players Balls had become the new Trekkie conventions. Until you remember that he's a hustler, Money almost has you believing that pimps fulfill an important human void in these uncertain times.

"Everyone wants to be a player," he explains, fanning a handful of twenties and waiting his turn for the dice. "We help uplift depressed people. I mean, who's better at having fun than us?"