Rony Seikaly: From dunking to DJing

Rony Seikaly at Pacha NYC: Two turntables and a microphone Courtesy of Naomi Castillo

I arrive at the world-famous Pacha NYC nightclub at 1:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday. Across the country, most people at this time are either winding down their night or fast asleep. But at this New York landmark, the party's just getting started. In fact, its headlining DJ act hasn't even arrived.

After I check in at the "list line" and get fitted with a VIP wristband, I'm led upstairs by a public relations representative for the club into the office of the owner, Eddie Dean. It's there where I wait to start the latest interview I've ever done with perhaps the world's tallest DJ: the 6-foot-11 Rony Seikaly.

Yes, that Rony Seikaly, the former Miami Heat center and 11-year NBA veteran who finished his career with a near double-double average (14.7 points and 9.5 rebounds).

But it turns out, way before basketball fans knew the Lebanese big man as "The Spin Doctor" for his trademark post-up spin moves, he had already been spinning -- house music, that is -- since he was 14 years old. At the time, he was living in Greece and had saved up enough money to buy record players, mixers, vinyls and headphones to play songs for his friends.

When he moved to the U.S. in 1984 to attend Syracuse and while he played in the NBA, he followed house music wherever he went. After he retired in 1999, the Miami resident got involved in the nightlife business and invested in some of the area's hottest clubs and restaurants. It was only until two years ago that he decided to turn his DJing -- and producing -- passion into a profession. Since then, he has performed at major hotspots from Miami to Ibiza, Spain, and released his first single, "Come With Me," and album, "Subliminal Essentials Presents: House Calls by Rony Seikaly," last fall.

Finally, at around 1:50 a.m., the door to the owner's office opens, as club music blares in the background, and in walks a three-person entourage with Seikaly trailing behind, bending his head down to avoid the door frame. There isn't much time before he hits the stage, which is where he'll be until 7 a.m. -- a far different life than taking the court at 7 p.m. for a game.

You've performed at Pacha before. What brings you back?
This is my first time headlining here. It's just been an incredible ride. From coming here as a customer, I just never even fathomed that I would be headlining this place. It's been an awesome ride.

What do you like about the venue?
If you get to play here, this is like playing in Madison Square Garden. There's no bigger, better venue for this kind of music in New York City.

How does coming out to an NBA arena compare to going on stage?
It's two different worlds, but kind of the same. The adrenaline is the same; you get the butterflies before you start. But it's a different world. When you're playing basketball, you're playing for the city. Here, you're just playing for the people who are on the dance floor. It's a completely different life for me, and it's really been one of those pleasant surprises in life. Sometimes life takes you kind of on an adventure, on a turn, and I can't be more blessed.

Do you have a "pregame routine" before you start?
[Laughs] I actually have always been superstitious, even from the days when I used to play. If it was a home game, I would always drive and take the same road. I would do the same kind of pregame because I just liked to be disciplined. When you get to a game, you know that you've kind of checked off everything -- just like when you fly a plane, you do all the preflight checks. I do the same thing here. I make sure that I'm organized because I don't want to look back and say, "I shoulda, coulda, woulda."

When did you first realize that you had a passion for house music?

I mean, I always had it. I would always play music for my friends, and it was just like a hobby. You could be painting and that could be your hobby, and then the next thing you know this gallery picks you up and says, "This is a little bit more than a hobby. We want you to take this seriously."

While you were in the NBA, did you ever DJ any parties for your teammates?
No, no. It was a different style of music. They liked more of the hip-hop. Whenever I would play the house music, they'd just basically tell me to turn that s--- off [laughs]. I was always into this kind of music, into this dance music, especially coming from Europe. I've been exposed to this kind of music for many, many years, and this is the music that I played for my friends when they came to my house. I've always had that passion. I've always loved making music and I loved always playing music. So the only difference is what I'm doing now is for the public. My friends and my family don't take it as a surprise. They know I've been doing this, so now it's just on a bigger stage.

Who have been some of your musical inspirations through the years?
Danny Tenaglia. There's a lot of people who have come and gone -- different DJs that play different sounds. But I have my own distinct sound, and that's something that not too many DJs have.

How would you describe your style?
Like [his mentor] Erick Morillo and some other guys, they just call it "Rony Style." It's just music that I make -- uplifting house music. It's just a different style than you would hear.

When you first moved to Miami, how did the South Beach club scene influence you?
It didn't really. I grew up in Greece and I was always good friends with the club owners. I would always go to all the clubs. Even when I was at Syracuse, sometimes I'd go off campus to the clubs. I wasn't a bar type of guy. I was more into the clubbing scene.

What are your dream venues that you would love to DJ at?
I actually played in all the dream venues. I played Pacha here and then LIV and Club Space in Miami. For a DJ, it's just so much fun to play for people who are actually listening to music, because most of the time you go to these VIP clubs and music is secondary. People are just looking to pick up girls and it's not about the music. It's not a dance floor-driven type of thing. It's just more of like who's here, who can I pick up. So when you play for like a dance-driven club, it's just a lot more satisfying.

House music has really picked up in the U.S. in the last few years, thanks especially to international DJs and producers David Guetta and Tiƫsto, and there's even a lot more crossover with pop and hip-hop. What do you contribute that rise to?
I think there's a window for the genre. Every 10 years, there's a new sound. I remember when I first came to this country, it was all about the disco. I used to go to Studio 54 and Palladium [in New York] and places like that. It was all about disco, and then that changed. The disco era turned into kind of more of a pop-ish, grungy sound. Electronic music got just loud and dark. Then we got into the hip-hop, which is a completely different world. Then from hip-hop, we went back to electronic music. I think where it's going is back on the dance floor. People want to go out and just get on the dance floor and dance. House music is a fusion of all this different music that you've heard in the last 20 years all coming together to get people back on the dance floor and dance. The dance floor and the clubs have been taken out of the equation in the last 10 years with hip-hop. It was all about bars and lounges, and people just dancing on their tables. Now it's back on the dance floor. Let's go and boogie.

What are you working on next? I know you also produce.
Yeah, that's the thing. I produce my own music and I play the majority of my music that I produce. A lot of it is not released. I've released some tracks with Subliminal [Records] and I'm going to continue to be releasing tracks with Subliminal every couple of months. And just continuing following my passion, and then when the candle burns, it burns.

If you were going to give LeBron or D-Wade DJing advice, what would you tell them?
I think the most important thing, for a DJ to make a name for himself, is he's got to have a distinct style. It's very easy for any DJ to just play everybody else's music or try to be somebody else. I think the most important thing, if you want to make a difference, is to be your own self, have your own style and not try to be somebody else.

As a Heat guy, what do you think about Carmelo Anthony going to the Knicks?
The Heat are still my home team. I keep cheering for the Heat, but now I'm also a Knicks fan because of Carmelo.

By the way, is Beirut's nightlife as crazy as they say it is?
Absolutely [laughs].

Jared Zwerling is a senior researcher for ESPN The Magazine, and contributing writer for ESPN Rise magazine and ESPNNewYork.com. Born in Miami, he now currently resides in New York City.