“Basketball is hip-hop. Hip-hop is basketball,” Quotes Quavo from Migos in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “It’s no way hip-hop would be around without basketball.”
From the benches to the court, Hip Hop culture has had an unquestionable impact on the world of the NBA. From countless references to athletes and teams littering the lyrical content of Hip-Hop tunes to All-Stars trading in their sneakers and jerseys for microphones and ice, the worlds of hip-hop and basketball remain entwined in (almost) perpetual harmony.
A Historical Union
The genre originated in America in the ’70s, as a form of self-expression and rebellion against societal injustice amongst the inner-city African-American and Latino-American populations. This coincided with a rise in African-American athletes joining the NBA as professional basketball players, a sport which, up until the ’60s, had been dominated by white males. This shift in ethnic majority altered the face of the sport, with a heightened pace to the matches, and the introduction of trick-shots and moves that have become court-staples today.
In the beginning, the NBA embraced the musical genre with open arms. As the genre gained recognition around the world in the ’80s, songs like Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball” were a common feature at arenas and sporting events. In 1993, Shaquille O’Neal became a pioneer of NBA hoopers in the rap scene with his debut “What’s Up Doc? (Can We Rock)”, gaining notoriety with his second release “(I Know I Got) Skillz”. This set the precedent for others of on-court fame to foray into the world of music, with players the likes of Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Chris Webber and Tony Parker taking to the recording studio in the hopes of uniting the two cultures. Some of them made it, others, regrettably, did not.
By the time the 2000s rolled around, the two worlds were almost synonymous with one another, with an entire generation of athletes having grown up on a culture of MCs and turntables. The players of this era of the NBA emerged from the same neighbourhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds as the voices of the hip-hop scene, emulating rap culture both on the court and off of it. It was not uncommon to catch players off-duty donning durags and oversized clothing, layered with gold chains and heavy, iced-out watches. The fashion of the NBA heavily reflected the player’s aim of representing a culture of hard work and struggle, of overcoming adversities and of a hustle to the very top of the game.
The Malice at the Palace
However, the 2000’s also marked a change in perception toward hip-hop and black culture in the mainstream media. Widely considered one of the most infamous, controversial events in NBA history, 2004 brought with it what is now known as ‘The Malice at the Palace’. On the night of November, the 19th, a fight broke out between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, the then-defending champions of the NBA. The violence spilled over into the stands, with members of the audience actively involved in the fighting. The brutal affair lasted several minutes and resulted in the suspensions of nine players for a cumulative total of 146 games, resulting in massive monetary losses to the NBA, as well as assault charges for five players and for members of the audience.
Following the brawl, NBA Commissioner David Stern implemented a strict dress code for the athletes, an unabashed attempt to distance the world of basketball from that of the “urban thug” stereotype of the hip-hop scene. In the famous words of Stephen Jackson, the NBA was afraid of being “too hip-hop”. This maneuver, meant to censor the public personas of some of their bigger players, was widely protested amongst athletes. The new law shook up both cultures, and it was beginning to look like the long-held association between music and sport would be severed forever, only retaining its importance in the pages of history books. Much to the NBA’s dismay, however, the opposite occurred.
This new generation of sports entertainers took the enforced dress code laws and tailored them to suit their own personal styles. Players traded in their usual baggy attire for designer brands like YSL, and Balmain, gracing the covers of fashion magazines and even starting their own lines of clothing, reminiscent of rap culture. Today, the connection between the black, hip-hop aesthetic and the sport of basketball is stronger than ever, with players turned youth icons to generations of aspiring athletes across the globe.
The Hip to the Ho(o)p
The message of hip-hop rings true in the hearts and minds of young, urban basketball fans everywhere. As Carmelo Anthony, professional basketball player once quoted in conversation with ESPN, “I think hip-hop has become so popular because it’s real. When cats like me hear hip-hop songs, it’s like, ‘Man, I went through that. We can relate.’ When suburban kids hear it, they feel they’re broadening their horizons. They want to know what’s going on, they want to be down. People say I’m real, and while part of that is my personality, I think listening to hip-hop all my life has had a lot to do with it. Like hip-hop, our generation links with the streets. That’s why, as a player, it’s important to keep your street credibility. But you’ve got to know how to balance when you can be street and when you should be a businessman. There’s a time and a place for everything.”
The player’s aesthetic, and their commitment to being the truest versions of themselves have also had a huge impact on societal norms, with NBA athlete’s names becoming synonymous with the ideals of unapologetic individuality and black culture. As six-time All-Star and rapper, Allen Iverson said in talks with ESPN, “At one time having a hip-hop image was a bad thing. Guys with cornrows, baggy jeans and tattoos were always known as suspects. Now you see police officers in baggy jeans when they’re off-duty. But dressing hip-hop is just a fashion statement. It’s just the way you look. It don’t have anything to do with what you got pumping in your chest. Never for a second did I consider conforming. I’m me. I’m satisfied with who I am and with what I stand for.”
The evolution of hip-hop goes hand-in-hand with that of the NBA, with both spheres advocating the same, powerful message: To be yourself is to succeed.