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Outside the Lines: Hip Hop & Hoops
On the basketball court, hip-hop has caused that line to disappear.
It is more than the controversy surrounding Allen Iverson's rap song. There is Rasheed Wallace owning his own record company, Chris Webber (ph) and Kobe Bryant each recording at rap CD, a shoe company growing its business 10-fold in five years marketing its products through the hip-hop music lifestyle.
In the NBA, where players get younger and richer each year, where hip-hop is the cultural reality for more and more players, the league faces the challenge of selling itself in the post-Jordan era, selling to people who are into hip-hop, and to those who are not. The hip-hop culture does cut across economic and racial lines.
It's music that's top selling in the United States. And while its melding with basketball is often seen in that music, it is clear that hip-hop and basketball are reflections of each other as never before.
Ley (voice-over)- He calls himself Main Event. And he likes to dunk over motorcyclists. He is one of the playground stars featured by the shoe company And 1 in its promotional videotape.
Jay Gilbert, President, AND 1- The And 1 mix tapes are pretty much the "SportsCenter" of playground ball. Every ball player loves "SportsCenter" because you get these great highlights from NBA and college. But nobody would ever put those highlights of playground ball and the playground players and the moves and package them all together and then set it to music. The response has been phenomenal.
"J" Erving, President, Erving Basketball Classic- It's entertainment basketball. It's not X and O basketball. We promote behind-the-back passes and slam dunks. We don't promote back picks and bank shots. It's the hip-hop element.
Ley- In basketball terms, the hip-hop life is a stylized fast break, one with a renowned creator.
"J" Erving- I think my dad's a hip-hop legend.
Julius Erving- Well, I don't know. Maybe from the funky side of socks, Converse, knee braces, wrist bands, afro or whatever, taking the ball to the hole with so -- I don't know, maybe there's some hip-hop in there somewhere.
Ley- In his day, Dr. J's acrobatic and freeform style shattered convention and helped the struggling ABA merge with the traditional NBA. Today, Erving's style is emulated, not just in his son's playground league but on the courts of the NBA.
"J" Erving- I think we're seeing it already. I mean, facing the greatest, throw the ball at the backboard and do an alLey-oop (ph) turn. And I don't think we would have seen that five years ago.
Julius Erving- Well, about five years ago, Steve Smith did that in a game. And management called him in and spoke to him about it and said, "You know, a play like that embarrasses the opposition."
I remember one day I had an early dunk in a game against Artis Gilmore. And he grabbed 40 rebounds that night. And they were like, "Why did you wake him up?"
I was like, "Well, I'm bad. I didn't realize that was going to happen."
Unidentified male- Slam dunk. It's so pretty. Bryant runs the floor, going to go for the slammer. Got it.
Gilbert- The NBA today is more like the ABA back in the day. And that's really a tribute to Dr. J. He still has a tremendous, tremendous influence on the game of basketball.
Ley- But there is at least one major difference. In the ABA, Erving finished his dunks with grace. Today in the NBA, players glare both on and off the court.
Unidentified male- You are a product of this generation. But yet you're going to pull it down.
Ley- The recent flap surrounding the lyrics of Allen Iverson's break out rap single challenge the NBA to reconcile the hard core hip-hop lifestyle of a number of its players with the league's public image.
Holiday- And just in case you haven't heard the song...
Holiday- ... here it is right here. This is the most controversial song in America.
Ley- Iverson's song spurred reactions because of lyrics perceived as promoting violence...
Iverson (rapping)- Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it.
Ley- ... offending gays...
Iverson (rapping)- Come at me with faggot tendencies, you'll be sleeping where the maggots be.
Ley- ... and denigrating women.
Iverson (rapping)- Everybody stay fly, get money, kill (EXPLETIVE DELETED) bitches. I'm hitting anything in plain view with my riches.
Holiday- Allen, as much as I defended the fact that he has a right to make these lyrics, he had to know that there was going to be a reaction. I mean, there was the press conference he had, the first press conference with the 76ers. Well, that's all they talked about was this single, "40 Bars." And he was as defensive as he wanted to be.
Iverson- You hear something about it, you don't need it right now. It's not going to kill you to leave here and not hear any comments about my album. It's not going to kill you. I know you need the negative. I know you need the negativity to sell your papers and for people to look at...
Unidentified male- I don't think it's a negative. I think we're just trying to get the other side...
Unidentified female- Allen, you were talking about people using...
Iverson- ... listen...
Platt- I think the media, the sports press, doesn't get the whole hip-hop ethic, which is the ethic that produced Allen Iverson. He grew up with hip-hop as the soundtrack to his life.
He knows what hip-hop is about. He knows that it's a storytelling technique, that it's not literal, that it's a fictional genre, and that he's telling a story and playing a character. It says on the cover of his CD, "Allen Iverson as Jewels."
Ley- That's hardly David Stern's view. The NBA commissioner called Iverson's lyrics "coarse, offensive, and antisocial."
Holiday- I mean, I can understand David Stern not liking rap. I can understand anyone not liking rap just like you probably wouldn't like country or adult contemporary or classical. But at least he respects it. I mean, he's probably not slapping any other NBA player down who likes classical music. OK, so they slap Allen Iverson down because he likes rap and is putting out a rap CD.
Pat Croce, President, Philadelphia 76ers- I can't control Allen Iverson's outside world. You know I can't. I mean, I've been here four years. So has he. So, no, he's a man, and he has other wishes, loves, dreams outside being an NBA all star and winning an NBA championship. And I can't control that.
Platt- The culture of the NBA doesn't know how to handle this. How do you market this?
It was easy to market Michael. It's easy to market Larry Bird. They fit a very conventional storyline.
Ley- And their stories were easily packaged in conventional commercials.
Larry Bird, former NBA player- It must be magic.
Magic Johnson, former NBA player- Now that's who this shoe was made for.
Ley- Don't expect to see Allen Iverson in any such spot. His latest 30-second shoe commercial is a hip-hop tribute to the playground; to rap; to tattoos, bandanas, and jewelry; to fast cars and sexy women. There are seven seconds of basketball. Different times indeed for the NBA.
Ley- And next, to consider these new times, I'll talk with the rapper, journalist, and activist Chuck D, and with an educator and author who sees the Iverson matter as a generational issue.
Ley- Hip-hop and the NBA. What will be the reaction as players try to keep it real?
I am joined this morning by Chuck D, one of rap music's seminal figures, also a journalist and commentator. He joins us from Atlanta. Kenneth Shropshire is professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also co-editor of the "New Anthology- Basketball Jones."
Chuck D, I pick up the morning paper there. The Sixers, the only undefeated team in the NBA 7-and-0. So suddenly Allen Iverson's CD is not an issue. Does winning push this off the table for the moment?
Chuck D, musician- For the second. In the NBA, they're dealing with a whole new reality of who they're going to have to market to. So the Sixers being the undefeated team in the league, you know, everybody is trying to pick up their same essence of style that Allen Iverson illuminates.
So it's a crossroads for the NBA. In the past, they've made the guys take off the gold around their neck and the earrings. And these guys are pretty much born around that same time when the NBA enforced those rules. And now they're going to come to another crossroads. They can't take the braids out of their hair or the tattoos off their skin. So it's interesting to see.
Ley- Ken Shropshire, as a business educator and also as a fan who lives in the Philadelphia area, what about this challenge for the NBA?
Ken Shropshire, University of Pennsylvania- Well, Chuck is exactly right. This is a crossroads for the NBA, trying to decide whether or not they should accept this new mode, the bad selves. And it's -- I think from David Stern's perspective it's this sort of in his mind maybe an ethical bottom line versus the financial bottom line.
Ley- Which will win out in your mind?
Shropshire- Well, that's what he's struggling with. I think he gave, in terms of Iverson specifically, gave him the opportunity to kind of reel things back in. And in February when the album drops, then we'll see what the real outcome is from the NBA standpoint.
Ley- Chuck D, is this a brilliant guerrilla marketing strategy for this, or just a media firestorm?
D- It's troubling in a way. When I was asked by ESPN to comment on a situation about Allen before, it kind of struck me abruptly. And since then, I've been able to look at the whole thing.
One thing about the NBA is that the guys playing in the NBA, it's still a job, whereas in music you're pretty much your own person, which is a good and bad thing because the unfortunate thing about hip-hop is its disorganization in parts and that it has no rites of passage like sports does. In sports, they have high school, college, and then the NBA in most cases. And it is a job. So it's hard to do both things at once.
And in the case of Allen, let's say with the people that might be around him, would they be around him if he was a full-time rapper as opposed to a full-time basketball player? So you've still got to trust the people around you and make sure that they sincerely love you for who you are instead of for what you are.
Ley- And he's not alone. Rasheed Wallace owns a record company. Chris Webber, Kobe Bryant have put out effort. Shaq, Shaquille.
D- I would tell an NBA player any day, say, "Hey, play in the NBA because when you get into the music field, there's a million cats out there." And I would tell NBA players or just like I tell any athletes, "This business does not play around because pretty much you are alone."
Ley- Well, Ken, you mentioned NBA Commissioner David Stern. Let's listen to author Larry Platt talking about the disconnect he sees in the NBA.
Platt- David Stern is a brilliant businessman. He knows that he still has a tremendous product.
But there's a fine line that he walks. I mean, the fact is that when he sort of reprimanded Allen Iverson for the CD, he didn't volunteer that his teams during the warm-ups all play hip-hop music.
Ley- And also, Ken Shropshire, the 76ers' mascot is nicknamed Hip-Hop. So is the NBA trying to have its cake and eat it too here?
Shropshire- Well, I don't know about that. I really do think they're struggling. I think they're trying to figure out.
They had this traditional NBA brand with Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and that whole traditional look. And now they're looking around and they're seeing with Allen Iverson bringing it to the forefront, you've got this hip-hop element. And the question is, can we market that as well to people that pay on average $50 a seat to come see our performances? And it does look like more and more is seeping in. And it's difficult for 50-, 60-year-old white men to say, "This is what America is all about now," and trying to figure out how to position that with a business that's been successfully branded in completely the opposite way.
Ley- What about...
D- I would also like to look at the parallels that are going on in hip-hop and the NBA right about now. The parallels are kind of like even in certain streets (ph), like who's running hip-hop, is corporations running it? There's also the super corporations that happen to run the NBA as well.
The faces involved happen to be largely African American also in hip-hop. And also the faces involved doing it in the NBA happen to be black as well.
But the audience is at a shift in the crossroads where, like you said, 50- to 60-year-old white males, the audience that the NBA is adhering to with the new style happens to still be white America, but the sons and daughters of those 50- and 60-year-old white men. So that's where the shift is changing. And that whole style that the hip-hop world illuminates is pretty much a part of that fabric of young upcoming America as it is from the guys themselves.
Ley- Well, let's look at what David Stern said. This is a statement he issued after he had his meeting with Allen Iverson.
He said- "The NBA is a private organization. Whatever constitutional rights of free speech an individual may have, there is no constitutional right to participate in the NBA. And I have the power under the collective bargaining agreement to disqualify players who engage in offensive conduct, including inappropriate speech."
And so, Ken, we're hearing that Allen Iverson may well not change the lyrics on his CD. So then what?
Shropshire- Well, that's a difficult call. So if Joe DiMaggio was gyrating like Elvis when Elvis was out of favor, would you throw Joe DiMaggio out of Major League Baseball? It's a very difficult call. And Stern gets paid the big bucks to make that call.
I think the conversation he has had is, "This is not what we want our business to be about." And he's trying to put some limits on it. But we'll see how he makes a call in February.
Ley- OK, we'll pick up with Chuck D and Ken Shropshire and the entire issue of hip-hop in the NBA and players trying to keep it real against the corporate reality of professional basketball as we continue on OUTSIDE THE LINES.
Julius Erving- Nineteen and no college, or 20 and one year of college, you're not equipped to deal with all of it. You can deal with some of it. You can deal with the physical aspect. You can deal with the teammates and the camaraderie and the things that are happening internally within the organization because you're being spoon fed. And they'll bring you along.
Ley- Julius Erving, who is seen by many in terms of basketball as the godfather of hip- hop basketball. So, Chuck D, he talks about younger and younger players coming into the league coming out of a hip-hop culture that is dominating lives for so many teenagers.
D- Yeah, it's coincidental, I come from the same home town that Dr. J comes from. So he was so much of a tremendous influence on us in his days in the ABA and his days in the NBA. And the thing that we got out of Dr. J is the ability to get in front of a national camera and also speak eloquently and be that black man that actually went against the grain as what the mainstream thought of a black person.
Ley- A crossover figure.
D- Well, I don't know. It just shows that Dr. J as a black man not only had physical skills, but he had mental skills as well. And we learned that as the basis of the hip-hop cat that could actually be in front of the camera, lucidate, and still do your thing with style.
And that combination, that blend, I think is getting skewed the other way where their rights of passage, for a guy to come out of high school directly into a league full of sharks to me is not a long-term personal investment for somebody's career.
Ley- Well, Chuck, at this point, though, Julius is, what, 13 years retired, a senior statesman universally respected and loved throughout basketball. Do you think when the Rasheed Wallaces and the Allen Iversons are in their mid-to-late forties they will be regarded in a similar vein as Julius is now?
D- I think young cats just feel that if they could get financially padded enough and find somebody to protect their money, that's the thing that they might say might differ between those guys today and the guys in the old days.
Even the same thing in hip-hop. If a person feels that financially they could be taken care of for the rest of their life, then pretty much they could be their own person. Maybe that's the difference.
But still, there has to be a rite of passage that allows you to lay ground for people to come after you. And I think that's the thing that's probably missing.
Ley- Well, Chuck, you mention the money. But, Ken, there are rules in doing business and, of course, becoming a hip-hop success and being a business success expanding beyond basketball. How have the rules changed now with hip-hop culture permeating American society and basketball to such an extent?
Shropshire- Well, the interesting thing is that the ball players are doing essentially what the higher-ups are doing. The ownerships in sports are looking to cross over into entertainment. You see the Yankee-Mets combination. You see the athletes doing the same thing.
If my boss can be involving their team, then so too can I. So from that standpoint, the entertainment that they know is hip-hop culture. And that's where the conflict is really coming is that so many people not the same age as these guys are saying, "What's this music all about? I don't understand it. And I'm not accepting it as an art form, as these guys characterize it."
So that's really what the dilemma is, is these guys are simply trying to cross over in the same way that sports ownership is crossing.
Ley- Well, they're crossing over, and perhaps the young folks are getting it. But the media, which can be largely, is largely white, and can be largely middle-aged, Chuck, the purveyors of the message, the player haters if you will, sometimes don't get it.
D- They never have got it. A lot of these same media guys had a problem with the ABA existed.
Ley- And now they love it in retrospect, right?
D- And they found a way. I looked two years ago at the NBA All Star game. It was finally where the NBA conceded to say, "OK, let's go with this hip-hop image." I remember early in the '90s where the NBA actually had told a lot of arenas to not play so much of this hip-hop music. And now today in the NBA, things are fantastic with this sort of like hip-hop blend. But when you also bring hip-hop along, you've got to understand hip-hop is totally a free-for-all, sometimes reflects the darker sides of black urban life reality. And then you bring that hip-hop element along, you're going to bring all of it along. And you're going to market it. You're going to have to market all of it.
And so you just can't be hypocritical and be two-tongued in the fact that you're going to bring it, but you're going to bring all of it because you're going to just find yourself fighting yourself when it comes down to marketing and promoting it.
Ley- Well, if that's true then, Ken, I would think the NBA has got a big issue on their hands.
Shropshire- Well, that's the difficulty. That's exactly it. If we're being successful somewhat with this hip-hop invasion, we've still got this ethical bottom line that we're concerned about. I don't know exactly where that's drawn. But that seems to be the dilemma that's there. Sure, there's this broad range of folks that are listening to hip-hop. The league is trying to understand it. But there's still the issue of the language. There's still the issue of abuse towards women. There's still the issue of abuse towards homosexuality, some of the issues that are raised directly in Iverson's music. That's not all hip-hop. But that's some of what Iverson brings up.
Ley- But there's also the anti-hero pose that hip-hop figures affect, right, Chuck?
D- Yeah, it's...
Ley- I read an account of Allen Iverson at home with some young 7-, 8-year-old kids laughing and having a great old time. And if that side of Allen had ever been known, I think a lot of people might think different about him. But the hip-hop ethic doesn't seem to want to let that happen. D- No, there's an imbalance in the media as far as handling. You know, these young guys are just human beings too. So there's great sides. And just like in hip-hop, I don't feel that the media even within music shows the positive side of a lot of hip-hop artists or people within the hip-hop culture. They always want to show the thing that's going to get the biggest story, the darker side or the side that comes out and says, "Hey," the thug side as opposed to trying to blend just a tint of rebelliousness with the fact of human spirit. And that's what...
Ley- Basically in for a penny, in for a pound is what you're saying.
D- These guys are...
D- ... good cats most of the time.
Ley- ... OK, well thank you for sharing that time with us. Chuck D and Ken Shropshire, thank you very much for helping us take a look at hip-hop in the NBA.
Next up, the details of an upcoming online chat on this topic. Hip-hop and the NBA as we continue on OUTSIDE THE LINES.
Ley- Tomorrow at 3-00 Eastern, an ESPN.com chat on hip-hop and the NBA. Joining us, author Larry Platt, author of the book "Keeping it Real," who has also written on Allen Iverson's life and career, tomorrow 3-00 Eastern on ESPN.com. And our e-mail address- firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ley- If you missed any portion of our look at hip-hop and the NBA, we will be repeating at our usual time. That's 1-00 p.m. Eastern, 10-00 a.m. Pacific over on ESPN2. Another edition of "SportsCenter" coming along in 30 minutes with Chris Berman and company, and "NFL Countdown" in 60 minutes. Today, an exclusive interview with Dick Vermeil on this year's Rams and how they can get it back on track.
Now to the ESPN Zone in Times Square for Dick Schaap and "The Sports Reporters." We'll see you next week.
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