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Wednesday, February 26
Taking it to the street

By Chris Palmer
ESPN the Magazine

It's the game. The life. The walk. The talk. The clothes.

It's that thing you can't exactly put your finger on. It's that thing that makes it real, as the kids say.

Kevin Garnett
Having street cred means players wisely get out of your way on breakaway dunks.
It's tough to define "street cred," and impossible to earn. But I know it when I see it. And so do you. And so do kids from suburbia who wear T-Mac jerseys they'll never grow in to.

To today's young athletes, the guys who set the tone for what's cool from Martin Luther King Blvd. in L.A. to Madison Ave., NYC, street credibility is everything. And it's nothing that can be bought or created by And1 or Reebok.

It's not about running around with ice chains and bad tattoos. It's not about being a superstar on the police blotter. That's stupidity, not credibility.

It's not something that can be earned with a slick, new TV commercial. It's not something that can be had by acting a certain way or listening to certain music. The under-20 set, the NBA's core audience, is too smart for that.

AI. Steph. KG. Odom. Spree. Rasheed.

They boast the street cred that Kobe or VC will never have, no matter how many times they show up at Rucker Park in Harlem, like Kobe did last summer. They can own the place for a day, but even a 15-year-old white kid from Nebraska would call him a phony if either dared say "yo, yo" or "whassup wit my peeps."

But like fame, true cred is fleeting. That's right, you can't earn it, but you can lose it. And KG won't be legit when he's 39. Or even when he hits 30, for that matter.

Stephon Marbury personifies street cred. Coney Island-bred, handle born in the streets, just the right inflection in his speech, the can't-F-with-me strut. The little things. But he's also got an aspect of street cred that no worthy hipster can be without: mystery.

Stephon Marbury
Stephon Marbury is head and shoulders above Kobe Bryant when it comes to street cred.
Don't let 'em get to know you. It's credibility's secret ingredient. Unless you grew up in his building, you don't know Steph. And that is by design. Rare is the athlete who is more charismatic than Starbury. He could have sold a million cans of pop or pizzas or whatever. But it never turned out like that.

The guy is one big mystery. Most NBA fans don't know the sound of his voice, yet he's been in the league for seven seasons. Mystery equals allure. And in some weird way, allure equals cred.

Amare Stoudemire. The kid is LEGIT. Major cred. Even though we've read about him, we don't know the man. He hasn't had a chance to blow our idea of him as a fully credentialed street hipster. My guess is he won't either. Kid is pure, through and through.

Look at LL Cool J. Back in the day, nobody could rap like he could. "I'll take a muscle-bound man and put his face in the sand," is what he told us back in 1985. And we believed him. But if he tried to pop that junk today, my grandma would throw her back out laughing. We know the guy too well. He's too polished, too old, too removed from the block.

Allen Iverson is going the way of LL. Once the picture of street cred, AI now makes two huge mistakes when it comes to rep: He tries way too hard. And he's become way too big.

That's strange considering he's the one guy in the league who doesn't have to raise a finger to prove his street value. But every chance he gets he wants people to know that he doesn't trust anybody -- that he's had a terrible life. But when you live next door to M. Night Shyamalan and pull $13 mil a year, that ain't "keepin' it real."

Had Iverson never made it to the NBA, he'd have more street cred than blood cells, but only his boys would know 'bout it.

Madison Ave. has caught on, and it's common for a sneaker company to throw a rapper and a baller together in a 30-second spot to promote a product. Reebok (Iverson and Jadakiss) and And1 (Marbury and 50 Cent) have cashed in on their cool quotient. But while it sells, the truth is street cred can't change hands.

For a while, And1's streetball tour was the hottest thing going. It was gritty, grimy and unrehearsed. But it couldn't hide the shiny bow And1 put on the street game. Still, their collection of ballers do have major street cred because they look, talk and fit the description to a T-Mac. But it's about perception, and who would feel the same about Hot Sauce after he did Leno or Cribs or Kimmel?

LeBron James
LeBron is still in high school, but he already has made a name for himself.
LeBron James oozes cred right now without doing a thing. He looks the part, has the game and despite the fact that he's been on SportsCenter seven days in a row, we don't know him at all. That makes him credible in the hip-hop view of things. He hasn't had the chance to prove he isn't pure.

But even if he's more Steph than VC, LeBron's street cred will soon be suspect because he's just too damn big. He'll have to walk a fine line to prove his rep, but being himself is what this thing is all about.

The reality is there is no definition of street cred -- just the players we know who have it, and those pretenders we know who don't.

Chris Palmer is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine.

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