“Should I sell drugs, be a rap thug, or play ball?” — LL Cool J
Basketball and hip-hop have been inexorably linked for decades.
Basketball is a game that is played globally, of course, but unlike many other sports that need big facilities or piles of expensive equipment or lots of empty space, a basketball hoop can be found on almost any playground. It’s a sport that is played on blacktop, the surface that is ubiquitous in cities. And the soundtrack of those cities is rap.
At its most basic level, all you need to play basketball is a ball and some type of hoop, even a milk crate. At its most basic level, all you need to make hip-hop music is a mouth and some type of beat.
Even without a hoop, a kid can dribble all day long and develop a deadly handle. Likewise, even without a beat, a kid can rhyme all day and develop a deadly flow.
“Rappers wanna be ballers; ballers wanna be rappers” — Rick Ross
Since they have become so intertwined, it should come as no surprise that the list of NBA wanna-be rappers is extensive or that the history of hip-hop is littered with NBA references. During the 2011 lockout, the sports satire site SportsPickle published a piece called “All 450 NBA Players Scheduled to Release Rap Albums This Week,” which is both hilarious and believable.
Despite their connections and crossovers, however, the NBA’s relationship with hip-hop has been complicated over the years. Trying to sell a league of young, super athletic black men to a crowd of white people that have enough disposable time and income to spend two-and-a-half hours attending a sporting event has been a tightrope that the NBA has been trying to walk for decades. It was a disaster in the coke-filled ’70s, turned successful in the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson-led ’80s, grew into a global phenomenon behind Michael Jordan in the ’90s, and then became controversial in the new century.
Just a few short years after Jordan’s second (but not final) retirement, Allen Iverson became the face of the NBA. Despite the league’s best efforts to push Shaquille O’Neal, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, and others, fans were drawn to the little man with a giant heart that was the MVP of the league in 2001, the same year he dragged a glorified JV team to the brink of a championship.
When the NBA, its sponsors, and many of its older fans saw Iverson and others like him, they were shocked by his appearance.
Cornrows. Tats. Jewelry. Baggy shorts. Attitude.
This wasn’t Michael, Larry or Magic. This was dangerous.
The first time Bird and Magic met in the Finals was 1984. That was the same year Jordan and Charles Barkley were drafted. It was also the year Run-DMC released its first album. Born a full decade before Kool Herc threw that first party at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Jordan had preferred jazz and soul, while Iverson represented the first generation of NBA stars that had grown up on hip-hop and their look reflected that fact.
In 2005, the league instituted a dress code that seemed draconian and racist at the time, but appears to be simply pointless now. There are a myriad of things that old, well-educated white men who wear suits every day don’t understand and one of the biggest is that fashion evolves swiftly and dramatically. Iverson and Rasheed Wallace looked the way many people dressed in the late ’90s and early ’00s, but that style has completely changed. Russell Westbrook would dress the way he does regardless of what rules are in place and Carmelo Anthony complies with the dress code even when he’s not anywhere near a stadium.
The dress code had been implemented under the watch of David Stern and it appeared that the NBA’s hesitation to acknowledge its rap alter ego would join Stern in retirement. After all, his successor Adam Silver gets it. He daps so much and in such a way that is different from other commissioners that it even garnered the attention of The New York Times. He realizes how much money hip-hop has helped to contribute to the NBA over the years in the form of merchandising alone. Those hats and jerseys aren’t cheap.
If anyone was going to be able to blend those two worlds, it would be Silver.
“You wasn’t with me shootin’ in the gym” — Drake
Which makes it all the more baffling that the league asked Sting to perform at halftime of the NBA All-Star Game. It’s nowhere near the spectacle of the Super Bowl, but the All-star Game is still a showcase event for the league and inviting a 64-year-old white guy to perform seems like a mismatch.
Dave Schilling wrote in The Guardian that the move makes sense because Sting is just Drake in the future:
“There’s a contingent of NBA fans on Twitter who’ve pointed out that because the All-Star game is being held in Toronto this year, the halftime entertainment should be Drake. After all, Drake is not only one of the biggest pop stars in the world, he’s also a diehard Toronto Raptors fan. The logic is sound, except for one thing: in 10 years, Drake will be Sting. That’s right, Drake is going to mature into an artist equally as corny, dated and self-involved as Sting. Why not just cut the middleman and get Sting now?”
I’m not a fan of Drake and have never understood his appeal (probably because I’m a washed up old white man myself), so I enjoy the idea of him becoming irrelevant, but the reality is that this was a slam dunk that the NBA bricked completely. Drake is a massively popular artist that is loved by both players and fans and if given the opportunity to perform at the NBA’s marquee event in his hometown, he would not have disappointed. Moreover, there are millions of Drake fans that are not basketball followers that would have tuned in to see him and at least some would stick around to watch the rest of the game. Sting is great, but he doesn’t move the needle like that anymore. The NBA isn’t attracting any new fans because of him.
After all these years, the NBA needs to fully embrace its relationship with hip-hop, because the two are not getting divorced anytime soon.