In what feels like a lifetime ago, a handful of beefs ago, maybe a baby ago(?) and definitely one shameful photo ago, Drake hit a nail squarely on the head with his debut album Thank Me Later. “I swear sports and music are so synonymous,” he rapped on the album’s closing track, “Thank Me Now.” “‘Cause we want to be them, and they want to be us.”
It’s no coincidence that Drake had just unfurled an extended metaphor, comparing his burgeoning career in rap to that of Allen Iverson, forging a lane for himself and staring Michael Jordan right in the eyes before crossing him over. Yes, while sports and music are generally synonymous, the intention is clear: basketball more closely resembles rap than anything else. The sport and the genre are as intertwined as the threads of the shirt you’re wearing now, and they mix as well as chicken and waffles.
There’s a reason that ESPN chooses to score their NCAA football coverage to the sounds of Taylor Swift, but use Migos, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole for their NBA coverage. They are synonymous, and they meet in a place where cultures collide, intermingle and become one. The NBA and the world of hip-hop have stood side by side for decades, whether it’s the fashion choices, the sonic thumbprint, the parties, the backgrounds of the characters involved, or even the color of their skin.
All of that blending comes to a head in the NBA Finals, the league’s marquee event every year (2018's begins tonight), and for the past eight years that event has featured their marquee player: LeBron James. James’ relationship with the world of rap extends back to before his NBA career even began, as JAY-Z was spotted watching the high schooler. From there, the bond only strengthened, with LeBron appearing in Jay’s music videos and on magazine covers with him, and Jay returning the favor by shouting him out in raps, showing up to his games and even recording diss songs in support of him.
LeBron’s musical reach has extended beyond JAY as well, as his Instagram listening sessions have become cultural mainstays, and they’ve even been used as a conduit to premiere music to the public as LeBron broadcasts new music to his nearly 38 million followers. LeBron is a favorite for name-dropping rappers, and he’s been known to pop up at concerts and make his way on stage. Celebrities flock to his games and gawk at his talents, and Rihanna has pledged her undying support, win or lose, for the man she’s dubbed The King.
But the relationship extends beyond just player and rapper friendships. When Iverson brought the rap world’s fashion staples (oversized everything) into the league, it wasn’t long before it banned players from dressing like “thugs,” installing a dress code that required slacks, blazers and collars at every game. By then, button-up shirts and polos had become fashion's norm, and were easily slotted into the basketball world’s wardrobes. When basketball went more tailored and dipped into designer fashion, rap did the same, and now that the axis has swung back to more streetwear as the NBA’s dress code has become more relaxed in recent years, both rappers and ballplayers have done the same.
The explanation for the constant overlap between basketball culture and rap culture can be explained in a lyric as simple as the one Drake used; “If I wasn't in the rap game, I'd probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game,” The Notorious B.I.G. once rapped on “Things Done Changed” from 1994’s Ready To Die. “Because the streets is a short stop, either you're slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.”
It’s a mantra that has rung true. JAY spat a similar idiom nearly a decade later, saying, “Whether we dribble out this motherfucker, rap metaphors and riddle out this motherfucker.” The humble beginnings of LeBron James, Draymond Green or Kevin Durant are the same for JAY-Z, J. Cole or Meek Mill. Single mothers abound, crowded houses and apartments, parents struggling to get by, and kids with dreams to rescue them all. Both rap and basketball are often viewed as the easiest and truest escape from the plight of the black man in America, though achieving those dreams are quite literally one-in-a-million or worse. The NBA and the world of rap are chock-full of black boys who became black men and did beat those odds, who did rescue their families and who relate to one another like nobody else can.
This, of course, is not the background for every rapper or basketball player, and that also serves as part of the intrinsic link between worlds. White kids stand out and face their own obstacles in a world where they’re actually the minority. Kids from more affluent backgrounds have forged their way into the respective cultures as well, offering new perspectives and honing their talents.
In 1984, baseball was very much living up to its “America’s pastime” moniker and boxing was in a transitional period after Muhammad Ali’s retirement, but Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns were on a collision course for what many expected would be one of the greatest fights of all-time. Carl Lewis won four gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles that year, and the Los Angeles Raiders were peaking and won the Super Bowl. Even the wrestling world was hitting a new gear as Hulk Hogan’s “Hulkamania” was kicking off, birthing a new era of that sport that would push it into being a billion-dollar business.
But when Kurtis Blow decided to make a hit record about sports, he only chose one: “Basketball is my favorite sport.” And those five words have rung true for the rap world ever since, and by the looks of it the basketball world has only reciprocated the love.
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