The other day, as I was riding in my car listening to music, I started thinking about my two favorite topics—basketball and hip hop. I usually think about one or the other, but rarely does my mind race about both. Are there any connections between the two? If so, what are the connections? My internal conversation caused me to flashback to a hip hop album, The Lost Boyz’ Love Peace & Nappiness. On that album the group played a clip of Allen Iverson talking about his rookie season in the NBA. That skit reminded me that Allen Iverson was one of the first guys to usher in the hip hop era into the NBA. Although that is true, the infusion of the hip hop culture and basketball started before Iverson.
Let me take a moment and point out some of the connections between hip hop and basketball. Some of the greatest basketball players and hip hop artists were raised in urban environments. Think about it: Allen Iverson, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony were all raised in urban environments. On the hip hop side, T.I., Nas, B.I.G., Jay-Z, and Snoop Dogg were all raised in urban environments. Hip hop was born out of struggle, defiance and a way for young people to express themselves. Basketball was not born out of struggle, but to many inner city youth, it symbolizes an opportunity for a better life for their families; in that respect, basketball epitomizes struggle and expression. Hip hop artists are exploited by record owners and guess what, so are basketball players. Hip hop is dominated by young 20-something year old African American males and so is basketball. Ironically, the biggest consumers of both hip hop music and basketball are non-African Americans. The two are inextricably intertwined.
Sometimes people discuss hip hop or rap as a genre of music. Those individuals underestimate the impact of the hip hip culture. It embodies language, fashion, attitude, and music. In the NBA, although Michael Jordan is not considered a representative of the culture, his decision to wear longer, baggy shorts and to wear an ear ring was a by-product of the defiance of the hip hop culture. In the college game, in the early 1990’s, Michigan’s Fab Five started a trend of wearing long, baggy shorts with black shoes and socks. They proclaimed to the world that they loved hip hop. They also expressed the ugly reality of exploitation of basketball players. In the mid 1990’s Allen Iverson entered the NBA. At that time, he represented the perfect storm between hip hop and basketball. He was young, rebellious and talented. He was born and raised in an urban environment, but was able to overcome significant obstacles on his way to super stardom. He wore his hair in corn rows, his arms were filled with tattoos (not initially), his shorts were baggy, he infamously wore fitted hats and platinum chains to press conferences. He said that he wanted to do things his way and he did.
The NBA profited off of the hip hop culture. During half time shows, you could often hear hip hop music being played over PA systems, or hear commentators making hip hop references. David Stern and the other “powers-that-be” used the hip hop culture to market to a more urban demographic. Many players during that time wore clothes that were comfortable for them and not necessarily business professional or even business casual attire. Although David Stern benefited from the hip hop culture, he yearned to control it. Therefore, it was no surprise to me that he passed a set of rules which require players to dress professionally when sitting on the bench. Now, if you look at the NBA players on the sidelines, they usually have on a suit or at the very least, a sports jacket. That was his way of minimizing hip hop’s impact.
Although David Stern attempted to stamp out or at least minimize the impact of hip hop, it is still alive and well. Players still wear diamond earrings, and bracelets. The only difference is that those are now accessories that go with Tom Ford tailored suits. Lebron James is a huge hip hop fan and he expresses himself before games by listening to the music on his headphones, or blasting the music in the locker room. Hip hop is also seen in the ownership ranks of the NBA with Jay-Z being a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets. Hip hop is displayed at All-Star weekend. Many hip hop artists perform and/or attend events during one of the NBA’s biggest weekends. Their appearances help drive even more people to the festivities and consequently contribute to the NBA’s profit margin. You see, the marriage between hip hop and basketball cannot be eradicated. The two are forever intertwined.