Bapping: Where Basketball And Hip Hop Collide

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This was my final project for Sports Reporting taught by Michelle Kaufman from the Miami Herald. I saw it as an opportunity to research and report on two of my favorite things: basketball and music. Enjoy!

Drake said it. James Jones agreed. Shane Larkin saw it. Julian Gamble nodded his approval. Michael Wallace didn’t deny it. Ballers want to be rappers and rappers want to be ballers. There is an intrinsic connection between the worlds of hip-hop and basketball.

“I swear sports and music are so synonymous, cause we want to be them and they want to be us,” raps Drake in “Thank Me Now.”

Both cultures are about being a star. Ultimately, basketball and hip-hop are defined by the individual hustle for success.

“Record labels are like teams and you want to be the best team,” offered Miami Hurricanes center Julian Gamble.

James Jones of the Miami Heat has played in the NBA for a decade with different teams across the nation. He sees how hip-hop permeates the entire league. The NBA is a business. The fun of hip-hop creates a desirable product.

“It’s entertainment. You don’t get that with soft jazz or country,” he explained.

He thinks one of the main reasons the two are so connected is because basketball is a street game, nurtured by the inner city just like the rap game. Whether it’s Queens, Houston, Atlanta, or Oakland, these celebrities hail from the same neighborhoods.

Michael Wallace reports on the Miami Heat for ESPN. He turned to writing after realizing in high school he wasn’t good enough to be a professional basketball player. He, like Jones, grew up with hip-hop. He has seen the connection between basketball and hip-hop as long as he can remember.

“In basketball there is an artistry, a coolness that has a lot of the same elements of hip-hop,” he reflected.

The earliest example he can recall is Kurtis Blow’s song, “Basketball.” In the 1984 hit, the rapper pronounced a love and extensive knowledge of the sport. Blow gave shoutouts to Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Magic Johnson among others. The iconic Michael Jordan, who is largely responsible for assimilating basketball into mainstream culture, had yet to play a minute in the NBA.

The University of Miami exemplified the parallel swagger of basketball and hip-hop this season. After a mediocre 2011, the Hurricanes had few expectations. Losing their exhibition game and losing an early game to Florida Gulf Coast confirmed these low hopes.

“A lot of people just wrote us off like, ‘There’s no way this team is gonna do anything special,” said Gamble.

As the season progressed, the Hurricanes started making a statement. The team felt the tides change especially after a buzzer-beater win on the road against North Carolina State. The players listened to Drake’s hit, “Started From the Bottom” before the game and after their success, quickly adopted it as their theme song.

“We started at the bottom at that Florida Gulf Coast game and we just kept winning and winning and winning and winning and winning and eventually we were the number two team in the country so started from the bottom now we’re here. It’s like now you know about us, you know about our team. Now we’re here to stay,” reflected point guard Shane Larkin, whose favorite artist is Drake.

The marketing department took full advantage of the song, creating Facebook photos of the team standing behind the lyrics. After the last home game, the Hurricanes clinched the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season title. There was a recap of the season displayed on the new video board with team highlights set to the song. All Hurricane fans were in love with Drake, if only for a few months.

The Hurricanes also made a name for themselves through their shoe game. Hip-hop has made basketball fashionable through artists wearing team gear, especially throwback jerseys. The Fab Five from the University of Michigan was the first college basketball team to incorporate hip-hop fashion into the uniforms. It was a huge deal when they stepped out on the court in black socks. Twenty years later, hip-hop fashion and basketball are practically synonymous today.

Larkin, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott were known throughout the country almost as much for their neon kicks as for their victories. Unlike most schools, the coaching staff does not require players to wear team-colored shoes, which allows for more personal expression. Websites like Sneaker Report look for the best shoes in the game. They started noticing Miami’s great fashion sense and gave shoutouts to the players on their websites and Twitter. The guys had a lot of fun seeing themselves online and tried to keep up their reputation.

“That just added to the hype around us already,” explained Larkin. “We just were kinda like the darlings of the season everybody was just behind the University of Miami. The shoes were just another thing that they could really like about us, so we liked doing that.”

Another way the team had fun this year was with their freestyle sessions, led by Gamble. Kenny Kadji and he rapped in the locker room to a beat supplied by McKinney Jones before playing Illinois in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The video blew up on social media. After beating the Illini, Gamble rapped again, this time co-signed by Scott, beat provided again by McKinney Jones. This video was so big it made it onto Sports Illustrated’s website.

“It’s just us messing around and having fun, like nothing too serious about people thinking they’re really artists and stuff like that, even though I’ve heard some good things about my stuff,” Gamble smiled.

Ballers want to be rappers. Rappers want to be ballers.

J. Cole is one of the leaders in the game when it comes to linking basketball and hip-hop. He has created a signature hoops metaphor for his journey in the rap world. After attending college to fill time, Cole was finally signed by Roc Nation in 2009. The label then delayed his debut album until September 2011.

“The Warm Up was like ‘Alright, I made the team. I’m on the team, now what? I’m not in the game. I’ll just sit. I’ll just ride the end of the bench.’ And then Friday Night Lights was like ‘C’mon man, you’re still not gonna put me in the game? What I gotta do? Here! I’ma kill in practice.’ Then Sideline Story was like ‘Oh wow, I really am starting now,’” Cole explained in an interview with MTV News. He could not be reached for comment for this article.

The covers of his mixtapes featured Cole as a basketball player in practice. For the cover of his debut album, Cole World: The Sideline Story, he posed in a locker room and the hardcopy CD was designed as a basketball court. This summer, Cole’s sophomore album, Born Sinner drops, ending the basketball metaphor. Don’t think the hoops analogies are over, though. His most recent release, Truly Yours 2, is full of rhymes about Wilt Chamberlain, Cole’s own performance in the 2012 NBA Celebrity Game, and the stereotype that all black men are ballplayers.

Gamble is a fan of J. Cole. They are both from North Carolina and Gamble appreciates the positive publicity the rapper gives the Tarheel state. Cole is known as a lyricist, which is something the sixth-year senior listens for in music. He likes how artists like Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Drake can do a little bit of everything for whatever mood he’s in. 

“The beat does matter because before a game it depends on whether you’re trying to really relax or if you’re trying to get hyped. I mean it’s kinda on a day to day basis on how you feel,” Gamble explained. 

“Basketball is all about rhythm and flow. Nothing reflects or replicates that more than hip hop,” stated Jones, a former Hurricane.

Jay-Z, Cole’s mentor, is also known as a hip-hop and basketball icon. His music has been featured widely throughout the NBA. His biggest contribution so far has been as part owner of the Nets organization. He was influential in moving the team to Brooklyn. Recently, he gave up his share of the team to pursue an endeavor in the sports agency business. As Wallace pointed out, Jay-Z isn’t the first rapper to try his hand as a sports agent as Master P represented Ricky Williams. Hov seems ready to pave his own path to success despite Master P’s miserable handling of William’s contract with the Saints.

“Jay-Z has a lot more clout. He’s business savvy and has a global brand. You don’t even know how to peg Jay-Z anymore. He’s developed an empire,” said Wallace.

Both Wallace and Jones said that Lupe Fiasco is one of their favorite artists right now. He is known for his insightful, sometimes controversial content. Fiasco doesn’t have the clearest ties to basketball, but his impact is felt. A native of Chicago, he is an avid Bulls fan. He also had a song, “Catch Me” on the NBA 2K7 video game.

Hip-hop is constantly evolving. It has quickly become mainstream after a long battle with thug imagery. The fight is not over as is evidenced by the NBA dress code implemented by David Stern in the 2005-2006 season. Players were coming to games and press conferences dressed in distinctly street clothing, such as Allen Iverson in his skullcap. 

“It’s almost cultural discrimination,” Wallace reflected.The league also tightly restricts player conduct, so as to prevent an image of violence commonly associated with hip-hop. Kevin Durant was fined $25,000 in April for pretending to slash his throat in celebration after a dunk.

Overall, though, the players are there to win for their team. Jones expressed it is a struggle to fight the desire for individual expression but realizes what his job entails.

“We express ourselves through our talents and skills on the court. You can’t do what 99 percent of the rest of the work force is allowed to do which is express yourself. You have to understand it’s the business you signed up for.”

Rappers, do you still want to be ballers?

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