YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


NBA Bounces to an Edgy Hip-Hop Beat

As it embraces the rap culture players have brought to the game, critics see a 'thug league.'

December 24, 2004|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

The face of professional basketball no longer wears Magic Johnson's familiar smile. It no longer has Michael Jordan's classic elegance.

Today, the game has a hipper, edgier persona. Tattoos and baggy shorts, a thumping beat.

"It goes hand in hand with where we're from," Laker forward Lamar Odom says. "Guys who come into the league, they're the hip-hop generation."

Players are only part of the cultural shift. The National Basketball Assn. has sought to boost its popularity among young fans by playing rap music at games and promoting street-inspired fashion such as throwback jerseys.

But though hip-hop can be an effective marketing tool, those who follow the business of basketball say the NBA is walking a tightrope.

The league's image has been tarnished by the recent melee between players and fans at an arena in Auburn Hills, Mich. The association with hip-hop similarly plays into concerns about a growing disconnect between the NBA and a portion of its audience. The head of a grass-roots fan group says that in the minds of some middle-aged ticket buyers, the music has helped perpetuate the notion of a "thug league."

With Christmas Day bringing one of the marquee games of the young season -- Shaquille O'Neal and his new team, the Miami Heat, in Los Angeles to play the Lakers -- marketing experts and sociologists say the NBA must take care in pursuing two very different generations of fans.

"How do you create an environment where you entice young people without alienating your core customers?" asked Artemisia Apostolopoulou, a Bowling Green State University professor who has studied the phenomenon. "The real question for the NBA is, how can they take advantage of the economic power of hip-hop without having the negative connotations?"

To understand where the league is headed, it is helpful to look back.

The game had grown moribund in the 1970s until the arrival of Johnson and Larry Bird. They not only reignited the rivalry between the Lakers and Boston Celtics but also set the NBA on a marketing path that showcased individual players over teams.

Jordan was the logical extension of that strategy, an extraordinary talent and equally savvy at presenting himself to corporate America. The league more than doubled its franchise values to $265 million over a decade and saw annual revenue approach about $3 billion, according to the Sports Business Journal.

The challenge came when Jordan retired and television ratings declined.

"The replacement parts came out of the hip-hop generation," said Jim Kahler, marketing director for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1991 to 2002. "We were looking at more tattoos, a different dress code."

This was the first generation of players to grow up with hip-hop, a cultural movement that started in New York during the late 1960s and early '70s, eventually flourishing with its own sound, language and fashions.

Rap music has been the most visible component and -- like rock 'n' roll decades earlier -- at times divisive. Gangsta rap, in particular, features violent images and derogatory language toward women.

On court, the new wave of players brought a defiant attitude.

"It's the way they carry themselves," said Todd Boyd, a USC critical studies professor who wrote "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," a book about hip-hop and the NBA. "Guys from impoverished backgrounds who, once they make the league and start making money, say, 'Look, I'm not interested in changing who I am. I'm not going to participate in this charade you've set up.' "

Instead of Jordan in a meticulously tailored suit, fans got Allen Iverson in sweats and a cap worn sideways, talented and rebellious.

To some degree, the league had no say in this change. Clipper forward Elton Brand echoed Odom's assessment when he said: "A lot of the players love [hip-hop]. They're immersed in it."

The culture's influence was immediately apparent if only because players are so exposed, no baseball caps or football helmets to hide their cornrows, no sleeves to cover tattooed shoulders.

The association between basketball and hip-hop grew even stronger when NBA sponsors began making use of rap in their promotions. Consider the case of Jay-Z, who signed a sneaker deal with Reebok and is also among a group of investors that owns the New Jersey Nets.

The rapper is a marketing director's dream, connecting with millions of young fans who listen to his music. He can also be problematic among older fans, given that his lyrics have been called misogynistic and, three years ago, he was sentenced to probation for stabbing a record producer.

"Obviously, a lot of people have been distraught about the relationship between the NBA and hip-hop," said Boyd, the USC professor.

So it should be no surprise that the league has taken a nuanced approach toward this partnership.

Los Angeles Times Articles