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NBA Athletes and Their Hip-Hop Counterparts

Written by Guest Author Marcus Banks

Executive Editors: Nicholas R. Hector & Andrew Fine

About the Author: Marcus Banks graduated from Franklin Pierce University in 2010. He has previously worked for the National Basketball Association, THG Sports and Entertainment, Turner Sports, and Turner Broadcasting and Entertainment. He is now attending New York Law School and hopes to pursue a career in entertainment/talent and sports management.

I would like to first give a shout-out to Nick and Andrew for allowing me to share my thoughts. Second, what follows consists solely of my thoughts and nothing more.  If anyone disagrees with me, please don’t take offense and feel free to provide me feedback through comments.  Now without further ado, I present to you my first article for THIRDandFOUR, “NBA Athletes and Their Hip-Hop Counterparts.”

Over the past couple decades, The NBA has been infused by hip-hop culture, notwithstanding Commissioner David Stern’s disdain towards a comparison of his “white-collar” league to a group of talented yet sometimes rebellious individuals.  Nonetheless, many of the league’s players have embraced the analogy.  As a result, I shall attempt to write about something that, based on my knowledge, has never been previously addressed; I will draw strict comparisons of influential NBA Athletes to their hip-hop counterparts.

I’ll start with my God-father Jay-Z and his counterpart Kobe Bryant. I recognize that this comparison is not obvious, but hear me out.  In my opinion, Kobe is arguably the best individual to ever play the game and Jay-Z is the best individual to ever pick up the microphone. For those asking, what about Jordan or Magic, don’t worry, we’ll get there.  People have argued that Kobe is good, but the reason that those same people will never consider him the singular greatest basketball player of all time is because he never played against Jordan—the greatest NBA player in most people’s eyes during his prime.  During Jordan’s prime, Kobe represented the kid with the afro who ran around the court and shot air balls, all the while veterans like Nick Van Exel gave him dirty looks.  In contrast, Jordan was a star on the court. When Kobe eventually hit his prime, or at least commenced his ascension towards it, Jordan’s career was essentially done and he had commenced his ebb towards retirement.

Likewise, Jay-Z spent most of his career battling “ghosts.”  I consistently hear he will never be better than Biggie and/or Tupac, but truth be told, you can never make a legitimate argument regarding that comparison because he never had an opportunity to battle either one of them. Just like Kobe and Jordan, when Biggie held the throne, Jay-Z was running around in Hawaiian shirts attempting to make a name for himself.

When he hit his prime (aka “took over the rap game”), Biggie and Tupac were gone.  R.I.P.

Additionally, for the lack of better words, Kobe Bryant is starting to appear worn-out. His performance in the 2010-11 playoffs was not too impressive; though, he got very little help from Pau Gasol.  However, the Kobe we all know and love and/or hate, would’ve put the Lakers on his back and pulled them through the challenge to complete the three-peat. The same performance withdrawal has plagued Jay-Z.  Every Jay-Z album has been a great compilation of music. But his last performance on the album “Watch the Throne” was far from his best work. As a whole, the album was a masterpiece, but it often sounded like a Kanye West album featuring Jay-Z, rather than a compilation. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still regard Jay-Z as the best lyricist, but he seems either a little disinterested or repetitive in his flow. Maybe that’s just what happens when you’re worth half of a billion dollars. Whatever the reason, he no longer provides the same level of aggression and rawness that we have grown accustom to experiencing and appreciating. And when I say, “we,” I mean the real Jay-Z fans and not the ones who just started listening to him upon his release of The Blueprint album. You can possibly make the argument that Jay-Z is more like a Bill Russell, primarily because of Russell’s eleven rings and Jay-Z’s eleven number one albums.  You can also make the argument that Jay-Z is more like Jordan because he’s the greatest NBA player of all time. Whatever your argument might be, more power to it.  I would love to hear it.  But, as I previously mentioned, my argument is based primarily upon the fact that Jay-Z will never have an opportunity to go up against Biggie or Tupac, particularly when all three artists were in their prime; nor will Kobe ever have an opportunity to go up against Jordan or Magic when all three athletes were in their prime.

Next on my list is J. Cole and his counterpart Derrick Rose. There are many reasons why these two individuals mirror each other, so let’s start at the beginning: Derrick Rose is slowly taking over the game of basketball. But what I love most about him is the way he is doing it. He has attacked the sport like a snake lying in wait for his prey. He has not made a big spectacle out of it nor has he been abrasive.  Moreover, he’s quietly becoming an on-the-court assassin. When Derrick Rose steps on the floor, you know he’s bringing 100% effort and heart, much like a modern day version of Allen Iverson who can also pass the ball exceptionally well.  D-Rose may not have the best jump shot, but it’s improving.

To further touch upon D-Rose’ assassin mentality, in the 2008-09 Bulls vs. Celtics playoff series, many of you probably recall that Ben Gordon was clutch and that John Salmons had his coming out party. What many people fail to notice is that Derrick Rose—as a rookie—had a solid 16 points and 6 assists per game.  Derrick Rose is considered the future of the NBA, particularly for those fans who like gritty and aggressive basketball players, rather than a bunch of “pretty boy” jump shooters. Derrick Rose serves as a reminder of when some of us adults were kids playing basketball in the park: when you got the ball and if you were man enough, you drove to the basket, took the hit, probably switched hands and maybe even impressed yourself with a lay-up that miraculously went into the basket.  Finally, Derrick Rose is very reserved and smart, doing his best to protect his brand and professional image.  You won’t find him living too lavishly or beyond his means or in the streets with an entourage.

The same sentiments translate to J. Cole.  I remember the first time that I heard J. Cole rap.  I experienced the same feeling that I received when I first saw Derrick Rose play basketball at Memphis as a freshman. I just knew that if he fell into the right environment and remained focused, he would take over the industry as a hip-hop artist one day. J. Cole is slowly becoming the most relevant rapper in the industry. He paid his dues, took his time and is progressively getting better. Just like Derrick Rose, J. Cole is taking over his profession quietly and strategically. His growth is most evident if you listen to his first mix-tape through his current album. He is not the best lyricist, but he’s certainly getting there.  He has become more versatile, developed a better flow, displayed more charisma, expounded on genuine issues, and become a better performer.  If you enjoy real hip-hop music—not the nonsense that we’ve dealt with for a while now—J. Cole is your guy.

Moreover, J. Cole, similar to D-Rose, is also very reserved and smart and is doing a good job thus far of preserving a solid image.  For instance, J. Cole has both turned down a limo ride from P. Diddy and a diamond chain from a jeweler. Why? Well, because at the time, he had just signed his record deal with Roc Nation and didn’t want to promenade around New York City as if he was “the man.”  Most importantly, he knew that he had not reached that level yet.  J. Cole is a breath of fresh air, a sign that good music is still possible, a sign of better days to come.  Last but certainly not least, J. Cole’s debut album hit number one on the billboard charts, which was much deserved. When J. Cole creates lines like, “I promise baby you can bet the bank on me,” you can’t help but notice his humble confidence. These two words wouldn’t normally find themselves aligned, but when you consider Derrick Rose and J. Cole, the description fits them perfectly. They are both so talented, they know it, yet they don’t boast about it.  In fact, they are both extremely underrated. When Derrick Rose won the NBA MVP award this past season, the“naysayers” criticized the League’s choice, saying he was good but not good enough, or that he was not better than Chris Paul or Deron Williams during the season.  J. Cole, as well, still faces criticism about him not being better than Drake or other young hip-hop artists in the music industry. It still remains to be seen how good these two men can be, but what the World does know is that J. Cole has the number one album and Derrick Rose holds the MVP trophy.  In my opinion, the future of hip-hop and the future of the NBA are both in good hands.

Next up, I will discuss Earvin “Magic” Johnson and his counterpart Tupac.  In the infancy of their careers, critics viewed Magic Johnson as flashy yet fun, while they classified Tupac as rigid and rough around the edges.  Though the two stars may have been polar opposites in there respective fields, they are actually very similar because they always did things their way.  When Tupac came on the scene in the 1990’s, he was a young kid rapping about being on the wrong side of the law.  It worked for him considering he amassed an immense base of fans.  Then, Tupac diversified himself when he began rapping about his appreciation of females in one of his most popular songs to date, “Keep Your Head Up.”

Indeed, “Keep Your Head Up” conveyed a complete opposite message from what his fans were used to hearing.  Tupac transitioned his lyrics from “gun-busting” to “appreciating and loving your sister.” As a result of him making this transition, he obtained an even larger fan base.  This served as a successful tool for Tupac to grow his brand because critics no longer labeled him as merely a Death Row Records advocate.  He was versatile.  They labeled him as a poet from the hood, a gangster rapper and arguably, the face of hip-hop.  By both holding up and standing under both umbrellas, he drafted the blueprint for rappers that followed in his footsteps, such as Nas and DMX, who sought to deliver a versatile mix of hardcore gangster rap and poetic, thought-provoking rap.

Likewise, Magic Johnson represented similar versatility.  The NBA has been and is a game of drastically diverse styles: the LeBron James power game, the Allen Iverson street game, and the Shaquille O’Neal dominance game, just to name a few.  Very few NBA players since the Jerry West and “Pistol” Pete Maravich era have successfully emulated their flashy but conservative style of basketball.  Then, “The Magic Man” entered from stage left.  He immediately made the former style of flashy yet conservative basketball popular and extremely entertaining, so much so that he changed the name of his team.  Indeed, the Los Angeles Lakers were no longer just L.A.’s team, rather they were Hollywood’s team; they were nicknamed the “Showtime Lakers,” and mostly thanks to Magic’s no-look passes, fancy dribbling and all around entertaining style of basketball.  Lakers’ fans grew to love and anticipate this style of basketball every time they entered the Forum.  Though Magic’s style wasn’t as popular throughout the rest of the League, he continued to do things his way, and we can all agree that he was great at it.  Magic’s style of play spearheaded a basketball revolution, and not only did he gain a strong fan base in California, he was loved around the World, except for maybe in Boston.

Moreover, commentators considered Magic Johnson a “freak of nature” because of his excellent ball handling skills and court vision, despite his abnormally large 6’9’’ frame.  To Magic’s advantage, he was probably the most versatile athlete in the NBA during his prime.  He could play every position on the court, including Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward and Center at any given time.  It was not surprising to see Magic dribbling between his legs against the 6’1’’ Isaiah Thomas or shooting the famous hook-shot over the 6’10” Kevin McHale and the 7’0” Robert Parish.

Both of these well-accomplished and admired men shocked the world through their abrupt and controversial career-ending moments. Tupac was gunned down on the Las Vegas strip following a Mike Tyson fight in November 1996.  His murderer has yet to be captured.  Somewhat similarly, Magic Johnson retired during a nationally televised press conference just before the start of the 1991-92 NBA season after contracting HIV.  Not shockingly, the world was distraught, bothered, hurt, and upset by both of their departures.

Next, I will discuss Eminem and his counterpart Dwyane Wade.  I draw this comparison based on two factors: (i) their “business partners;” and (ii) the brief professional interruptions during their careers.  With respect to business partners—who are often referred to in the hip-hop and NBA cultures as “running mates”—Eminem teamed up with 50 cent to form Shady Records/Aftermath Entertainment.  When 50 cent stormed onto the rap scene, many people immediately crowned him as being great, forgetting about the enormity of his running mate.  Granted 50 Cent sold millions of records and garnered a grandiose fan base, he has shown that he is nowhere near as talented of an artist as Eminem, primarily because his tracks lack sincerity, originality and depth. Though the fans and critics momentarily disregarded Eminem and placed him on the back burner upon 50 Cent’s arrival, they have come to realize that Eminem is still the superior artist.

Eminem, accordingly, has come back with a vengeance.  His “Relapse” album wasn’t great, but “Recovery,” released on June 18, 2010, was a masterpiece.  In short, the album proved that Eminem remains a lyrical genius.

Similarly, Dwyane Wade, the star Shooting Guard for the Miami Heat, had to momentarily hand over the keys to Dade County when LeBron James took his talents to Miami at the commencement of the 2010-11 NBA season.  A large contingency of NBA fans immediately crowned the Heat NBA Champions, while they simultaneously crowned Lebron James the most talented and seasoned basketball player on the team.  Though LeBron James may be as talented as D-Wade, most NBA fans can agree that his performance in the 2010-11 Finals proved that Dwyane Wade dwarfs him with respect to veteran experience and an innate ability to take over critical games.   During the 2010-11 Finals, Wade was clutch, smarter with respect to his shot selection, a better defender, a true leader, and most importantly, Wade exuded professionalism and a drive to win at all costs.  Ultimately, Dwyane Wade displayed that Miami remains his team.

In final, Dwyane Wade and Eminem both took brief hiatuses from their professional careers, yet they weren’t missed.  Eminem took a leave of absence from the music industry because of his confessed drug addiction.  Dwyane Wade took an involuntary leave of absence from the NBA due to injuries and a personnel shakeup within his team.  When the two entertainers disappeared, rumors spread that their careers were complete.  Nonetheless, they both reemerged and exploded on the scene, reminding us fans why we should have never counted them out.

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