NBA's Culture Clash

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

Strong, smiling, polished clean, not a blemish on him. There, on the cover of GQ magazine, the sports issue, is the Miami Heat's Dwyane Wade, stripped down to his waist, in silk and cotton boxer shorts. It's an NBA marketer's dream shot. It's like Wade is emerging from a cocoon, hearkening a new era, non-threatening and baby-like.

Wade, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets are the holy trinity being offered up to fans by the NBA's image police. That's not to suggest this is an initiative where style trumps substance. As NBA fans know, as most sports fans know, these three rank among the elite. The fact they have no rap sheet to accompany their resumes, the fact they appear and act like businessmen, both on the court and with their off-court business endeavours, well, that's so much the better.

Last year it was the dress code that took the league's hammer -- collared shirts, dress slacks and dress shoes were legislated in; 'do rags, ball caps, baggy jeans, retro jerseys, bulky chains and medallions were out.

It has been two years since "Malice at The Palace," the brawl in Detroit that black-marked the Sacramento Kings' Ron Artest forever in the minds of those inside and outside of the NBA's circle. That has been unfortunate, since Artest, from the perspective of the game's purists, ranks among its best defenders. Since the brawl, that "fusion of culture" between hip hop and basketball has been taking a beating (hip hop, by definition, is a movement, with different elements, such as music and fashion, started among urban African Americans in New York City in the 1970s.)

This year the NBA fired another shot across the bow of the perceived bad-ass element with the no-talk-back rule when it came to dealing with officials -- or the no whining or "Rasheed Wallace" rule, named in some quarters, but not the league's, after the argumentative and demonstrative Pistons forward/centre.

Wallace got tossed out early in the Pistons' home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks for excessive complaining. That angered many, if the roar Wallace received when he jogged out for the pre-game shoot-around, or the pre-game introductions, was a fair indication of his popularity in Detroit.

A few days later the Detroit Free Press ran an article targeting a "culture war" backed by NBA commissioner David Stern, and the risk that a game founded on emotion and expressiveness soon would be one played by "Nike-clad robots." The Wallace rule was the latest league salvo aimed at putting a nice, friendly face on the NBA. What has followed through the first few weeks of the season has been long line of technicals -- 90 unsportsmanlike technical fouls to players to date, 44 of which are classified with respect to these new initiatives or emphasis.

"It's an emotional game and you have to allow for that emotion," Raptors point guard Darrick Martin said. "There's a fine line, in terms of being respectable and carrying yourself in a responsible fashion. But emotion is what attracts the fans and drives our market."

Even owners were targeted. This year the league brought in the "Cuban rules," targeted specifically at Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- who has a long history of trying Stern's patience -- giving the league more powers to police actions of owners deemed unbecoming according to league standards.

Overall, ever since the Artest-led charge by Indiana Pacers players into the stands of The Palace, tossing punches with drunk and disorderly fans, the NBA has walked a fine line between embracing the edgy image of hip hop that sells to young people and the family product it feels it needs to be.

It's obvious which way they're going. Whether they tip the cart and cut into their present and future fan base by selling too much to the family market is a timely debate.

Artest declined The Sun's request for an interview. Cuban also turned down a request, e-mailing: "I no longer do interviews about the NBA, or anything that helps market the NBA. I leave that to the geniuses at the NBA."

People in the local hip hop community, and others who are fans of it, were talking and see the trend as unfortunate.

"Not almost, it is an insult," said Joshua (Wizdome) Barclay, who works in promotion and marketing for Toronto's Universal Urban music. "It's bull----."

What's at stake, said Barclay and others, is a misunderstanding about what hip hop is really all about, based on racial and generational biases, and the NBA's overreaction founded on those misperceptions.

"I was one of those people, I came through it," said Marvin Williams, a second-year player with the Atlanta Hawks. "Just because people wear 'do-rags, or baggy jeans and retro shirts doesn't mean they're hardcore."

Said Joe Johnson of the Hawks: "We can't argue about it. We just have to go with it."

What's at stake according to some is a league seemingly hell bent on catering to corporate sponsors, targeting those middle class forty-something consumers, white males mostly, cosying up to their high-def TVs in the suburbs, or being able to afford those $50 seats, and a middle finger to that inner-city culture that helped produce many of the NBA's top players.

Roy Rana, coach of the basketball program at Eastern Commerce high school in Toronto, considered one of the elite programs in the city, pointed to the "entitlement affliction" of which the aggressive, even perceived thug-like, attitude of some NBA players was a symptom. Rana said it all starts with this attitude among elite players that come through the Amateur Athletic Union system in the U.S., where it's all about getting that elite player in front of top schools, flying him to where he needs to be, fitting him with the best gear. That's what people should really be talking about.

Then there's fact the NBA is going global in a big way (last year's NBA final aired in more than 200 countries), with talk of future pre-season camps in Europe and China, growing international TV and merchandising deals, and a growing number of international players coming into the league. That global reach means more eyeballs and more perspectives on North American basketball culture.

"It's an insult to kids, telling them the lifestyle they look up to or live is not acceptable in corporate lifestyle," Barclay said. "And it's an insult to the owners of NBA teams, some of whom are artists in the hip hop business (Nelly and Jay Z). They're taking away from some of that passion behind the game. It's taking away from who we are."

HIP HOP MARKET

Said Kyron (Kid) Clarke, associate editor of Urbanology magazine, dedicated to educating people about the hip hop market: "They don't need to abandon (hip hop). They don't need to go 'core."

The game is becoming too corporate, less emotional, according to some. The music has been amped down. "Sometimes I close my eyes when the NBA is on TV, and it's like I'm watching golf," said Kevin Jeffers, an assistant coach with Eastern Commerce. Akil Augustine, a 24-year-old producer at Raptors TV, said the league should think twice about going too far with minimizing innercity cultural influences, by continuing to drift toward country music bands for pre-game and halftime shows for example, or they'll risk pushing away a large chunk of young fans in the urban markets (on this front, the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki, to his eternal shame, admitted last season he sings David Hasselhoff's Looking for Freedom to himself when he's on the free throw line, to calm himself down.)

"You can't stay pure to two counter cultures," Augustine said.

Those fans who came to the game for both athleticism and hip hop trends will turn to other entertainment options. "The consumers of the NBA back in the 1990s and early 2000s aren't looking at them as much now, because (the NBA) is not for us," Barclay said.

Then again, maybe an NBA game that's become more up-tempo and fast-paced, led by the Phoenix Suns, is all the edge enough kids need to see. Kevin Goodman of Youthography, a Toronto-based marketing firm that specializes in helping companies speak to younger people, says a recent sports study they conducted showed that basketball ranked at the top in terms of participation by youth, and that the NBA is simply speaking to the people spending millions on sponsorships.

Sixteen-year-old Alwayne Bigby, a guard with Eastern Commerce, in the downtown core, doesn't mind where the league is going at all. He said the NBA is as good as it has always been. He said he tunes in for Wade dunks, or cross-over dribbles, or a deft coaching strategy late in a tie game that propels a team to victory.

"Players can still show their aggressiveness by making great plays, helping out their teammates, going to the basket aggressively without whining or taunting the other team," he said.

"I think the NBA is creating better role models for kids."


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