Basketball is America’s most successful pro sports export to the world. It’s also the only sport connected to hip-hop. Coincidence? Of course not.
With record revenues of $5.2 billion in the 2015-2016 (The Sports Quotient) and t.v. ratings continuing to climb, the NBA is on an upward and outward path that sets it apart from America’s other major professional sports. Like hip-hop, this success is largely due to its global flavor, which is to say, its continuing connection to urban chic.
There has never been a more complete symbiosis between sports and music, but the path to glory was not straight and smooth. While hip-hop music and culture has arguably been the trellis to the NBA vine, playing an influential part in helping pro basketball to reach its current heights internationally, the relationship between the world’s urban sport and its urban music hit a rocky patch a little over ten years ago – and hit it hard.
Can’t You Be More Like Mike?
Things were not always this way. At the end of the Jordan era, NBA fans were tuning out and complaining about the new style of the game – on the court and off. Hip-hop had suddenly taken over pro basketball in America.
An invisible line had been crossed in ways that quickly became synonymous with the sport. The 1990s had watched the length of players’ shorts approach the top of the knee (purportedly thanks to Michael Jordan’s sense of style) and in the early 2000s the kneecap was eclipsed.
In 2004, NBA analyst Michael Chilbon (“Hip-Hop Culture Contributes to NBA’s Bad Rap”) suggested that league officials and team owners had made a less-than-calculated decision to get in bed with youth culture and hip-hop without fully understanding what this marriage would entail.
“NBA folks probably didn’t know what they were getting into,” he said, “how much hip-hop’s street code might appeal to the players, and how much the league’s very mainstream ticket buyers and sponsors might be resentful of a subculture they don’t understand or distrust, even if their white, suburban, well-to-do children inhabit the same subculture.” Public relations disaster struck in the form of Ron Artest in what remains the NBA’s darkest moment.
Although today Artest (Meta Worldpeace) is not thought of in connection with with hip-hop as much as he is with, let’s say, odd psychology, his fight with fans in a Pistons-Pacers game was connected by fans around the league and pundits around the country to the negative side of hip-hop culture.
Writing for ESPN at the time Chris Brussard pointed out that “After Ron Artest, who happens to hail from hip-hop’s hallowed Queensbridge projects in New York, went buck-wild in Detroit, league honchos winced as the nation connected the brawl to hip-hop.”
A quote from NBA super-fan and film director Spike Lee in Brussard’s article colorfully sums up the league’s conundrum at the time:
“Corporate America, of which the NBA is a part, loves the demographics and numbers hip-hop represents. But a lot of baggage comes with that. Like when Nelly becomes part-owner of the Bobcats. So now we have an NBA owner who endorses a beverage called Pimp Juice? I’m sorry, but nothing about a pimp should be put on a pedestal. And do the Bobcats have to drink Pimp Juice instead of Gatorade?”
The league administration took notice and took action in 2005 with a dress code and new community outreach programs, but the uber-manager Commissioner David Stern was faced with a sticky problem. Much of the relevance, the allure and the chic of the NBA game came from its hip-hop cultural associations. And, more than ever, the league was eyeing an expansion into the global market.
The marriage of hip-hop and pro basketball was good for business abroad. Allen Iverson was sometimes a divisive figure at home, but he was a hero to kids in France and China. His play and his style spoke to an international audience – one that craved more “street,” more “realness,” more hip-hop – not less.
The NBA’s image issues represented a challenging push-pull for Stern, who recognized that race played a part in the special criticisms pointed at pro basketball in America.
“I think it’s fair to say that the NBA was the first sport that was widely viewed as a black sport,” Stern said in the wake of the debacle in Detroit. “And whatever the numbers ultimately are for the other sports, the NBA will always be treated a certain way because of that. Our players are so visible that if they have Afros or cornrows or tattoos — white or black — our consumers pick it up. So, I think there are always some elements of race involved that affect judgments about the NBA” (“NBA Fights to Regain Image”).
The image problem, as Stern recognized, was symptomatic of deep issues in America, but the NBA’s problem was not hip-hop affiliation exactly or race, but a vulnerability to stereotyping that was only strengthened with the hip-hop-and-basketball marriage.
Race played into the NBA’s branding dilemma, absolutely, but, then again, when it comes to the marketplace, race is an issue that hip-hop has proven can cut both ways.
The Globalization Game
When you look at statistics from around that time showing that 37.1% of 15-25-year-olds in China “love hip hop” and as a group make up 22.8% of the population there (Audible Hype), we begin to get a sense of Commissioner Stern’s post-Detroit dilemma.
The NBA’s governors were tasked with finding a way to appease those 296 million Chinese kids – “a core hip hop demographic about the same size as the entire United States” (Audible Hype) while somehow also distancing the league’s image from the proverbial “street.”
You get into a “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” bind when you try to separate the sport from its merchandise-selling cultural associations with what has become the most popular genre of music in the world.
David Stern did a tight rope walk for the ages when he balanced the successful hip-hop associations against the less successful, street connotations of hip-hop culture.
Having applauded Shaquille O’Neal’s family friendly rap releases of the 90s, Stern strongly encouraged Allen Iverson not to release his rap album in 2000 because it was in the vein of gangster rap. Jay-Z sat courtside at the All-Star games – sometimes in a suit and sometimes in a t-shirt and gold chains. The needle was swinging back and forth like a metronome for a while there.
So the marriage of the NBA and hip-hop was complicated and troubled, you could say, but it was made to last.
Stern’s careful and highly visible adjustments – the advent of community outreach and a player dress code – were enough to steer the NBA brand through a tough period. Since then, things have gotten easier thanks to the trend toward mainstreaming hip-hop culture.
In the early 2000s, hip-hop “solidified its standing as the dominant influence on global youth culture,” writes Alan Light in “Hip-Hop in the 21st Century.” Light also points out that the main-streaming of hip-hop music saw the establishment of figures like Ice Cube, LL Cool J and Queen Latifah as popular screen actors and generalized celebrities.
The cultural center had shifted and the NBA was now standing smack-dab on top of it, poised to take over the world. Why? Because the players and the administrators of the NBA got married to hip-hop, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
And what a glorious union it has proven to be.
For a bit more on basketball’s ascendancy, check out my article on Medium.