Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Hip-Hop Hoops

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Hip-Hop Hoops

Article excerpt

What happens when the MC dribbles and the center rhymes

It was 1996, and Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, John Wallace, and Dontae Jones were getting a taste of the pros' life in the National Basketball Association's Rookie Transition Program. The first-round draft picks had money in their pockets, fame in their future, and a chauffeur-driven limousine escorting them around Orlando, Florida. But trading high-fives proved inadequate to express the excitement they felt about having attained their lifelong dream. So the quartet decided to celebrate through song: rap songs.

There, in the back of the limo, they improvised lyrics, each taking turns reciting original rhymes about his basketball prowess, newfound wealth, and soon-to-be-acquired material possessions. In hip-hop vernacular, they were freestyling.

"We were just flowing, rapping about everything," says Marbury, the star point guard for the New Jersey Nets. "I usually don't rap, but it was like `All right, now you go.' So I just said some junk. I don't even know what it was, but it was rhyming."

THE NBA-RAP CONNECTION

Similar scenes are played out every season in the NBA, where hip-hop music is as prevalent as the jump shot. It is played in locker rooms before games and in arenas during halftimes. Scores of players write rhymes on the plush, chartered flights to and from games, while others own record labels. The Portland Trail Blazers' Rasheed Wallace and the Seattle SuperSonics' Gary Payton have rap radio shows. This summer, Marbury and Boston Celtics point guard Kenny Anderson played ball against the Terror Squad's Big Pun and Fat Joe in the video "Whatcha' Goin' Do."

While athletes in other sports may have similar experiences, the NBA has a closer connection to hip-hop than any other professional league. That is partly because of the overwhelming number of black players, but also because the league has embraced hip-hop. Every February, the NBA invites popular rappers to perform at its All-Star weekend, and two rap songs, Kurtis Blow's mid-1980s classic "Basketball" and Naughty By Nature's "Hip-Hop Hooray," appear on the league's 50th-anniversary soundtrack. The Charlotte Hornets (last season) and the Toronto Raptors (this season) even invited Master 19, a platinum-selling rapper with dreams of playing in the NBA, to their training camps, despite the widely held belief that he lacks the ability to play professionally.

THE HIP-HOP ATTITUDE

Even the style of play, at least among some of the game's younger stars, has become hip-hop. Like the rappers who almost uniformly refuse to smile in photographs and videos, lots of young players wear defiant scowls that project a raplike toughness and rebellion. …

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