How Basketball Has Changed My Life
Part I of V — Hip-Hop
Who Am I? (What’s my Name) — it’s the first song I can really remember listening to and I can say it’s played a significant role in the person I’ve turned out to be. When I was seven or eight, it would come off an old boom-box that played while I watched my big brother work out in our basement, religiously tracking reps and sets on a spreadsheet that couldn’t have been so simple to build at the time. I think of it less nowadays but I had often felt like a product of my two older brothers rather than of my mother and father; a hopeful blend of someone who gave you an unequivocal answer that always turned out to be right somehow, who opted for patience over compulsion, and, of another whose altruism kept everyone warm, who intuitively embraced difference and chose not to ignore it.
Listening to Snoop Dogg made me pretty oblivious to the coastal feud of the mid 90’s and I’ll admit it didn’t help Biggie much that I had spent most of those years rewinding California Love over and over and over again until double-sided tape decks finally came along. Together, the two tracks gave everyone countless hours of joy and inspiration that I would spend in the backyard playing basketball with my brothers. And though I’d go on to hear Gin and Juice and Ambitionz Az a Ridah just as often, they never resounded over a game of “American” as well as the two I had come to know and love.
The relationship between basketball and hip-hop went far beyond soundtracks however; sure Snoop and Tupac drove me to practice but basketball paved the way for acts, lyrics, and even subcultures I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Professional athletes like Kenny Anderson and Larry Johnson, basketball players I looked up to, were forewords to emcees such as Erick Sermon and LL Cool J through the wonders of “NBA Superstars”, a FOX Home Entertainment VHS tape that would so shamelessly combine music videos with basketball highlights (think of Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All mashed together with an afro-rocking Julius Erving dunking all over the place) which really isn’t all that bad when you think about it.
From there, replayed highlights and sing-alongs led to imitations and personal favorites; they opened the door to new VHS tapes which evolved towards compilations to play ball to and, inevitably, resulted in pre-game rituals and post-game cramming. I had gone from timidly discovering Warren G’s Regulate before house-league play to suddenly blasting Ghostface Killah’s Winter Warz out from a yellow school bus before road games. Interweaving basketball with rap was not just a recurring trend but an intensifying appetence. Before heading out, I would listen to music and focus on practice; I’d go play and think about the albums I had heard that day then finish playing and carry on with different parts of the albums, adjusting the music, tweaking my game, on and on until what emerged was, above all, a ridiculously untouchable eighteen-track mix CD (nineteen if you’re lucky) and a completely changed attitude
What was it about hip-hop and basketball that worked so well? I think their roots are painfully humble but their skills are often so clouded by the market and its misguided values. They are both so largely admired for their commercial success and simultaneously appreciated on different scales for their levels of dedication and trust. They may be saturated with wannabes and charlatans but at their core, they are dominated by a mastery of all the right fundamentals conflated with a ton of substance and an ounce of flare. Maybe these are the traits that drew me in or maybe it was all just good timing. All I know is that by fourteen, I had basically run 19’s Panasonic Discman into the ground (being too cheap to buy my own for the aforementioned road games) but if those buds weren’t in my ears it’s because there was a always basketball in my hands.
- Even though I grew up playing basketball to Who Am I? and California Love, it turns out these are pretty much the most awesomest jams for anything.
- Whenever Ready or Not by The Fugees is played, I envision a slow-motion alley-oop being thrown. Every. Single. Time.
- Shawn Kemp has the best highlight pack in “NBA Superstars 3”
- Of course, they made more than one “NBA Superstars”, come on.
Photo by: Matthias Heiderich