The men--hairy, fat, mostly white, knocking on the door of middle age--dance without shame (or rhythm) to Snoop's "Drop It Like It's Hot." More than 18,000 Bulls fans roar as "The Matadors" back their thangs up before closing with a Bboy stance. This is what timeouts often look like in the NBA of 2005--adults, kids or mascots throwing the latest hip-hop moves to the latest hip-hop tracks. Shorts, which once covered nothing but jockstraps, cover everything but calves. Samples, not organs, blare--and not just during game breaks but game action. Headlines of the league publication, Inside Stuff, shout "illest," "chillin' " and "playa." Nelly and Jay-Z own teams. Yes, hip-hop is as much a part of the NBA landscape as early entry. And to some folks, this is not good. They shake their heads at brash teenage rookies who make arrogant stares an essential follow-up to dunks and crossovers. 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. Concerned about their "image problem"--as if image problems aren't as American as red, white and blue--they longed for the days of Michael Jordan.
Thing is, while MJ is held up as the NBA's antihip-hop icon, the league's ties to the culture are rooted in him. He was the first pro to abandon the short shorts, and his Nike ads with Mars Blackmon were hip-hop way before Iverson traded rhymes with Jadakiss. It's exactly 20 years since the Air Jordans were released and almost banned by the NBA for color violations.
By the time AI entered the league 11 years later, hip-hop was the established music of choice for young America. So when he rebelled against league standards--sporting cornrows, shunning suits and ties and rockin' a skullie at the Rookie of the Year presentation--a cultural icon of sorts was born. Today guys in the first post-Iverson generation, such as All-Star Amare Stoudemire, literally have no other frame of reference, on or off the court.
Not for nothing, the league's bottom line certainly hasn't been hurt by its relationship with hip-hop. Gross NBA revenues this season are projected to top $3 billion, almost double the take of MJ's last Bulls season in 1998. No surprise there. Look at the rest of corporate America, which has caught up with what the NBA figured out a long time ago. Turn on your TV. Hip-hop stars sell everything from cameras to fast food. On Super Bowl Sunday, P. Diddy and his Pepsis got more screen time than Freddie Mitchell.
Yeah, the NBA has gone platinum. Listen up, as some insiders tell you all about it.
AGE: 22; SUNS; 2003 ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
"Hip-hop makes you feel like it's all right to be from the streets. That's where I'm from. Now I'm representing guys who ain't really got nothing, especially the kids who are trying to make it. That's why it's great that guys like Nelly and Jay-Z have become entrepreneurs. It's always nice to see young black guys who grew up in the slums without any positive role models make it. And I'm happy the NBA has become a part of that, giving Nelly and Jay-Z a chance to show how smart they are. It's not easy to write rhymes and tell a story at the same time. But being owners takes them to a whole new level. Listening to hip-hop music motivates you, but watching these guys motivates you more."
30; THREE-TIME GRAMMY WINNER; PART-OWNER, BOBCATS
"There's a lot of love between rappers and players. When we see each other we're both in awe. And rappers love making music for the guys to get hyped to before the game. I'm telling you, when you're in the booth making a record, you're like, Oh, somebody gonna rock to this. Somebody gonna come out and get it started because of this joint.' Like when I did the `#1' song. I was like, Yo, T-Mac gonna have his way with this one.' You think like that because you love the league. Now, growing up I had dreams, but I never really thought I'd own a pro team. So when Bob Johnson gave me the opportunity to buy into the Bobcats, I was like, Wow. That's a big move.' But I want to be an example to the kids in the city. You wouldn't believe how many want to be rappers, but that's all they want to be. They don't want to be businessmen. I got into hip-hop for the love of the music, but I found I could parlay success into better opportunities in life. I've tried to open as many opportunities as possible. My ultimate goal, though, is to bring an NBA franchise to St. Louis."
39; NINE-YEAR NBA VET; TV ANALYST
"Basketball has always been connected to hip-hop and vice versa. Old streetball at Rucker Park influenced hip-hop because the bravado of the players is what got the people out to the event. The real hoopers were wearing adidas sweat suits and shell toes before Run-D.M.C. came out on wax. Then Run-D.M.C. brought that look to hip-hop and onto the national scene. Difference is, back in the day, the bravado stayed on the floor. Today players carry the bravado off it, and that's when fans don't like you and start blaming hip-hop."
47; KNICKS FAN; CREATOR, MARS BLACKMON
"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?"
58; MAJORITY OWNER, BOBCATS; FOUNDER, BET NETWORK
"The criticism the NBA receives because of its connection to hip-hop isn't a subtle racism. I would call it a subtle ignorance. Multiculturalism is a part of America that is going to impact our images and our cultural experience from now on. The NBA is simply embracing the obvious. People who don't understand that haven't looked at where this country is going in the 21st century."
40; PROFESSOR OF CRITICAL STUDIES, USC SCHOOL OF CINEMA-TV
"There's always been this give and take between the league and its players in terms of who has the final word on style. When Michael Jordan participated in his first All-Star dunk contest in 1985, he had on gold chains, his own Air Jordan warmup suit-not the All-Star warmup-and Air Jordan shoes. That ticked off a lot of veterans. People forget about all that, like Jordan was always the guy that he was by the time that he retired."
46; OWNER, MAVERICKS; CHAIRMAN AND CEO, HDNet
"The NBA hasn't made a conscious effort to align with hip-hop; it's made a conscious effort to build a fan base. Kids drive merchandise sales. Kids are our future customers. If classical music were hot with 12- to 24-year-olds, you'd be asking why the NBA is tied to Brahms. I don't even agree with those who say hip-hop offends our older, mostly white ticket-holders. Today's 45-yearolds listened to it in college. We were the first to play samples in-game because it was more energizing than an organ, and we got fined because the music was outside NBA parameters. Now everyone does it. These days the only decision is whether to play Rapper's Delight' for the dads or 50 Cent for the kids."
24; BULLS; FIRST-TEAM ALL-ROOKIE 2004 "I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and me and all my friends listened to hiphop. We used to play DMX, Mase, Tupac and, obviously, Biggie, before games. Almost the whole population of basketball listens to hip-hop, regardless of where they're from or if they're black or white or whatever. If you play basketball, you're exposed to it."
27; THREE-TIME PLATINUM ARTIST
"In rap it's about competition, and in the NBA it's about competition. Hip-hop is also about confidence and boldness, so when a player has a hip-hop mentality it means he shows confidence and is creative."
53; CHAIRMAN AND CEO, THE BONHAM GROUP, A LEADING SPORTS MARKETING FIRM
"It's a good thing that the NBA is reaching out to its younger fans. What people lose sight of is that while there are some unsavory images associated with hip-hop, the reality is there are millions of good kids who are hip-hop fans and there are tons of hip-hop artists who are good people. Any league that isn't aggressively and proactively marketing to the younger generation is shortsighted. I think the NBA has done a terrific job of that, much better than Major League Baseball and the NFL."
23; CAVS; NO.4 PICK 2002 DRAFT "I feel hip-hop because it's pretty much all I've listened to my whole life. It's the era I grew up in. When I was born, in 1981, that's when rap music was just starting to jump off. Latrell Sprewell was the first player I saw wear cornrows in an NBA game. I remember there was a lot of controversy about him wearing them, and a bunch of stereotypical comments made about him. Now everybody's got braids or cornrows. That just shows the league is evolving, just like society is. By the way, when hip-hop is playing in the arena during the game, you don't hear it. It's not until you watch the game on tape that you notice, `Hey, they were playing "Drop It Like It's Hot" in the third quarter. That's all right.'"
36; BULLS; VP OF PLAYERS UNION
"I hope the business sense that artists like Jay-Z and Nelly are showing rubs off on the young players. I want somebody to stand up and say, Look, these kids got it going on. We want to be a part of them.' I actually think some of the rappers can help our image, because the thing I'm concerned about is the NBA's image. I always want our image to be on the rise, and if the rappers can help young players get business-minded, then I'm all for it."
20; NUGGETS; WEARER OF THE NBA'S NO.1-SELLING JERSEY
"I guess Jay-Z said it best: `Real recognize real.' I think hiphop 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."
32; ROCKETS; TWO-TIME NCAA FINALIST AT MICHIGAN
"Everybody says the Fab Five started the long shorts trend, so I guess we did. When we got to Michigan, we made a special request to wear baggy shorts. I mean, as soon as we stepped on campus, we all talked about it. Coach Fisher gave his approval but under one condition. He said, `In return, you guys better give me some victories, give me a championship.' At the time, we had no idea the shorts would become so popular. But I did feel players would want to wear long shorts because, let's face it, those short shorts … I mean, I know the ladies liked them because they could see the guys' legs, but they just weren't comfortable. The shorts were definitely inspired by hip-hop. The black socks too."
25; MARKETING MANAGER, AND1
"I think the skull caps and the cornrows spin off what the Fab Five had already established in basketball. The Fab Five were viewed as outcasts because they would not conform to the masses. They were like, `Either you like us for who we are or you don't, but we're not changing.' By doing that, they set a precedent for being who you are and representing yourself and not being afraid to step out of the box. They had people wearing long, baggy shorts, rockin' black socks and wearing bald heads before Jordan."
59; NBA HALL OF FAMER; TV ANALYST
"Some say the way today's players dress is equivalent to how I dressed in the '70s. To an extent, that's true: we dressed like the guys we idolized-the Temptations, the Four Tops-and now guys dress like their icons. The difference is, our entertainers were sharp. Now, the more street you are, the better. Back then, we were representing our race on the court. The way we acted and responded helped other black people get into the league. They don't have to worry about that anymore."
29; SIXERS; THREE-TIME SCORING CHAMP; SIX-TIME ALL-STAR; SHELVED RAP ARTIST
"It's an honor for me to be considered the guy who made hip-hop style okay in the NBA because 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."
24; KNICKS; NO.8 PICK 2000 DRAFT
"When I first saw A.I. sporting cornrows, it was like, Wow.' He made the people feel like they could reach out and touch him. That's why he has so much love. As for me, I could use a little more love: I've never been mentioned in a song. To hear someone rap "crossover like Crawford'' or something like that? It'd be dope. I can't lie."
38; VP OF GLOBAL MARKETING FOR LIFESTYLE AND ENTERTAINMENT, REEBOK
"Allen's playing in cornrows started from a bet. Cornrows were becoming popular on an underground level in the inner city and some of the guys in his crew had them, so he started wearing them. Then one of his friends said, There's no way you can rock cornrows in the league.' Well, A.I.'s the wrong guy to challenge. It drew a lot of controversy, but at the end of the day, it made him an icon of young black culture. The kids thought, He looks like me, he walks like me, he talks like me.' Plus, you had all these adults telling him how he should dress, who he should hang out with. The kids related to that, too."
42; EXEC. VP OF ENTERTAINMENT, NBA MARKETING
"Back when Allen Iverson won the league's Rookie of the Year award, he embraced the hiphop look, and it was new to us and to a lot of the national audience. We didn't really know how to handle it then, but now we've grown to understand and accept it. It's got to start someplace."