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NBA Talking Points: Hip-Hop, The NBA, And Why?

At this point it's become cliche to say that the worlds of hip-hop and basketball are intertwined. Partly because it's just self-evident, and partly because people like Stuart Scott and Stephen A. Smith have built careers exploiting the overlap in the most obnoxious way possible.

But even acknowledging the cliche, it's still amazing to look at the intersection up close. Just this week, we had a story on Tuesday about a player skipping a rap concert that the rest of his teammates were attending, because the rapper in question had previously written a diss record about him. Then on Wednesday, the night after the concert, the same rapper (Jay-Z) was courtside to watch to the Mavericks-Lakers game with his famous pop star wife (Beyonce). And then after the Mavericks won, you had Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-foot German dude, talking about "Jiggaman" sitting courtside.

Think about how surreal all that is. Had Dirk Nowitzki played any other sport growing up in Germany, there's a decent chance he never even knows who Jay-Z is. But he plays basketball, so Jay-Z is just "Jiggaman," the dude sitting courtside over there. I know it's something that we hear over and over, but really. It's insane how much to the two worlds overlap. You can't say it enough.

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All of which is a long-winded way of saying that yesterday, as I was writing about basketball, Jadakiss' 2004 song "Why" popped up on my iTunes shuffle, and the wheels started turning. If you haven't heard the song or don't remember it, the music video is here. The song--and the equally awesome remix--revolves around a series of fly-in-the-ointment questions like, "Why did Hallie have to let a white man pop her to win an Oscar, why did Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?"

It runs the gamut from ridiculous ("Why did Bush knock down the towers?") to self-indulgent ("Why my buzz in L.A. ain't like it is in New York?") to the vaguely profound ("Why all the young brothers dyin'/Cause they moms at work, they pops is gone, they livin' wit iron").

And it got me thinking. What if Jadakiss had written "Why" about the NBA? What would that have looked like? He wrote a series of raps about Allen Iverson for Reebok, so it's not like he doesn't follow basketball. It would be awesome, and since his career is currently in a holding pattern, we can only ope he reads this column and gets to work on "Why: The NBA Remix." But since Jada's not here to ask the tough questions, let's take a shot without him. Just know that I wanted to put together raps for each question, but realized that a white blogger rapping about the NBA would probably be the lamest gimmick of all time. You're welcome.

Anyway, when Jada writes an NBA "Why," these are the questions he should ask...

Why Doesn't Derrick Rose Just Do It Himself? This isn't to say Derrick Rose isn't one of the best young players in the league, but watching the Bulls-Wizards game the other night, it took him three-and-a-half quarters before he just said "Screw it" and started driving the lane on every possession. It's a question we could ask about a number of the NBA's most dominant stars (Ex: Dwight Howard) but Derrick Rose is probably the most frustrating for two reasons. First, because he's the point guard so he's always got the ball in his hands and could theoretically do whatever he wants, and second, because the rest of his team is garbage. What's to stop him from taking over on every possession?

On Monday night, when Rose finally said "screw it," watching him dissect the Wizards defense was kind of unbelievable. He can overpower anyone that tries to guard him, he's athletic enough to hang in the air and hit any tough shot you can imagine, and he's enough of a star so that he gets foul calls from the refs that a lot of players don't. When Derrick Rose is attacking, the Bulls go from one of the least entertaining teams in the league to a cant-miss show. And they're also just better. WHY doesn't he do it more often?

Why Are The Kings Suddenly The Knicks? "The Knicks" connotes a team mired in turmoil and bad chemistry, losing at an alarming pace, and generally just killing the spirits of fans. How did this happen to the Kings? Sacramento began the year as one of the feel-good stories of the year, surprising the league with an early .500 record, the Tyreke Evans Chilli Cheese Fries Burrito, and more hope than that franchise has seen in years. Now?

The Kings are 4-22 since January 1st, their games are legitimately difficult to watch, and this week, Paul Westphal went and benched Spencer Hawes after the third-year lottery pick offered (completely fair) criticism of Westphal's inconsistent substitution patterns. Hawes' comments were echoed by Sean May and Tyreke Evans, as well, but only Hawes was suspended. Why? Because Westphal said so, apparently.

And even though Hawes sitting doesn't exactly kill the Kings' chances on any given night, it's still a sign that all is not well in Cowbell Country. The storybook season that took shape back in November is now mired in the "conflict" section of the book. Adversity with this team was expected and a rough patch probably shouldn't prompt any panic, but back in November, a turn toward Knicks territory would have been inconcievable. How did this happen?

Why Is Kevin Garnett Always Yelling? Nobody knows, but it'd be great if he would just stop.

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Why Does David Stern Want A Strike In 2011? This is our equivalent to Jadakiss' "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" The idea that David Stern would actively encourage a work stoppage is a ridiculous conspiracy theory... That will no doubt be floated over the next 18 months. But it just makes no sense. The infrastructure of the NBA needs a serious overhaul, but Stern would be a fool to court a full-on strike from the players' union. The league's on financial life support right now, but that's partly because sports fans think that NBA players are greedy and apathetic. A NBA strike in 2011 will just perpetuate that sentiment, creating more public relations issues for the league office, and deepening a division between players and fans that the NBA's spent millions trying to bridge.

With that said...

Why Do The Owners Want A Strike In 2011? Because many NBA owners are greedy and apathetic. And under the current (failing) business model, they would save money with a work stoppage. It's going to be interesting whether this angle ever gets exploited by the NBA Players' Association, but there's no question that for a lot of owners, a labor stoppage is the goal, not the consequence, of the collective bargaining war that's set to unfold over the next 18 months.

(Relevant "Why" lyric comes in the remix, when Common asks: "Why is Bush actin, like he's trying to find Osama? Why don't we impeach him, and elect Obama?" That was in 2004. PROPHECY!)

Why Does Lebron Keep Shooting Threes? I've been whining about this for a while, and Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer wrote on this subject earlier this week and nailed it. It's one of those common sense questions, like when Jadakiss asks, "Why they gonna give you life for a murder, turn around and only give eight months for a burner?" And why is Lebron, the most unstoppable player in the league, pulling up and taking a bunch of jumpshots all game? The best way to illustrate this problem is to watch Lebron James play with someone that's not a huge basketball fan.

For a normal person watching Lebron, it's impossible not to react with wide-eyed awe at how easily he gets to the basket, how much contact he absorbs, and just how dominant he is. Almost everyone's first reaction is... "Why doesn't he just do that every time?" But he doesn't. And nobody knows why. The most memorable game of his career came against Detroit with his "48 special," when he just decided, "I'm going to the basket every single time," and he was completely unstoppable. He scored his team's final 25 points. It was a transcendant moment, where everyone collectively realized, "It may be impossible to stop this guy."

But about half the time, instead of playing to his strengths, it's almost like James feels compelled to play to a stereotype of what a great player does. Because he grew up watching Michael Jordan play, Lebron probably thinks that to be the Greatest, he's got to hit fade-aways, tough three-pointers, and do all the things that Michael always did. Except... He's not Michael.

And when Jordan was James' age, he was attacking all the time. Not until Jordan aged did he become primarily a jump shooter. So to Lebron: you're young. You're still incredibly durable. You're the most dominant, imposing athlete in basketball, and probably in any sport. Stop shooting jump shots. You're a 35% three point shooter. And you're NOT Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. Threes, long fade-aways, turnaround jumpers. What's the point?

Hercules never bothered with finesse. Lebron shouldn't either.

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Why Are Carmelo's Jeans On Backwards? Look closely at that photo of Carmelo and Jadakiss, the rapper that spawned this whole column. What's up with Carmelo's jeans? Are they on backwards, or is that the style now? Thigh pockets, huh? Are those the jump off these days? Is that what's hot in the streets? The intersection of hip-hop, fashion, and basketball is great, but those thigh pockets? Questionable.

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Why Are The Hawks So Confusing? I don't know, but Peachtree Hoops nailed it yesterday:

At certain points in this season, the Hawks are a team that has played its way into legitimate conversation about being an "elite" teams in the league and is yet wildly inconsistent. One does not know what to expect quarter to quarter let alone game to game. In simple terms, this is a team with no identity. That is not to say they are not consistent. No, they consistently win and lose the same way. Shoot, the Hawks do the same thing every single night. Results just vary. But before you say it, Joe Johnson isolation is not an identity. I eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich the same way every day, yet there is no marked characteristic about it just because it is repetitive.

So often other teams and their fans say, "I don't like playing the Hawks because of their athleticism and talent." What does that even mean? There is never "I don't like playing the Hawks because their athleticism and talent employed on defense" or "because they pound the ball inside relentlessly" or "because they run" or "shoot the three well" or anything. It is the "you have a neat personality" description of the NBA world.

All season long, I've been looking to the Hawks as a darkhorse in the East. And occasionally, that's exactly what they look like. But then other nights, they look like the same team that's been floating in no-man's land for the past few years. Really athletic and talented, but they can't quite put it together. I want to think the Hawks are going to surprise people come playoff time, but then, they give up fourth quarter leads to the Golden State Warriors and lose, and as Peachtree outlines, I'm left wondering what it is they really "do" as a team? Then they go and beat Utah at home, and... Well, it's all extremely confusing.

Why Isn't Kevin Durant A Top 5 Player? Seriously. Tell me why. He's tied with Lebron James for first in scoring (29.8 ppg), and he's shooting 48% against nightly double teams. He's carried the Thunder to an improbable 33-23 record, and physically, he's as difficult to guard as anyone in the league not named Lebron or Kobe. Durant's been one of the biggest stories of the year so far, but the narrative always talks about him in terms of potential. Like, he's doing this now, imagine what he can do in a few years. And that's a perfectly natural reaction. He's 21 years old, for God's sake. 

But what he's doing now is just as impressive as what he may do later. Right now, today, would you rather have Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony? Durant or D-Wade? Durant or Chris Paul? A few months ago, the answers to those questions would have been easy, but now? Not so much, if you're being honest. We look at Durant as this precocious youngster, and with good reason. But he's also one of the deadliest scorers in the league, carrying a roster that's just as overmatched as Dwyane Wade's Miami Heat team, but playing in a tougher conference. Are we sure Kevin Durant isn't one of the five best players playing in the NBA right now?

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Why Are The Portland Trail Blazers Cursed? It's getting kind of ridiculous. Marcus Camby is day-to-day with an ankle sprain, but seriously. What basketball deity did this team piss off? And if any franchise is less deserving of this kind of karma, I'd like to see it. It's like the universe is playing a cruel joke on the people of Portland.

Why Does Lebron Need Max Money? Ordinarily, it'd be obnoxious to even suggest that someone turn down an extra $40 to $50 million to do anything. It's the sort of preachy, condescending jibberish that people direct at hedge fund managers on Wall Street. "You should take less money, for the greater good." It's easy to say that when nobody's offering YOU a $20 million bonus at the end of the year.

But with Lebron, this isn't a moral issue or even a "for the sake of the team" issue. It's a business decision, and the logic that underpins the argument applies specifically to Lebron. He should take less money, because long ago he decided that he's competing in a different game. Lebron wants to be a billionaire, not a hundred-millionaire. And if he were to take less than max money this summer, it'd allow a team--the Cavs or someone else--to improve the roster around him, and put him in better position to win titles for years to come. And that's ultimately what he needs.

He's already got a global presence in terms of exposure, but imagine if he wins six or seven titles in the next ten years? At that point, he's not a famous athlete, he's a famous Winner. His brand shifts from "Lebron, the superstar athlete" to the "Lebron, the most successful athlete on the planet." You think that won't be worth an extra $20 or $40 or $60 million to the scores of companies courting him for endorsements?

Michael Jordan was famous for a lot of reasons, but more than anything else, his legacy was that of a winner. Ask a non-sports fan what they know about Michael Jordan and they'll say, "Basketball player, Nike commercials, won a lot of championships." Lebron's already got the first two, but with the league more competitive than ever, why not give himself an edge in the battle for championships? In the end, it's just a good business decision.

Why Did Kobe Have To Hit That Raw? Finally, this is a line from the actual Jadakiss song. The song came out in 2004, when Kobe's rape trial was still in full swing. (Awkward white guy epiphany--raw is also shorthand for cocaine, so the line works on two levels. As Jada's asking, "Why did Kobe sleep with a white girl?") Last week, I talked in some depth about Kobe's psychology, and the different ways we've come to understand him over the years:

For basketball fans, we remember. He wanted to be Jordan, then he wanted to be the assassin, "Black Mamba," then he wanted to be the likable team player, and now, he wants to be the mysterious supertsar, with a competitive psychology that defies our understanding.

So how does Kobe seem to me? Like a guy who's never quite understood himself.

And rather than re-hash that discussion, a simple question. What if Kobe didn't hit that raw? Or, what if that rape trial had never happened? It sounds horrible to say that a rape trial is what ultimately distinguished him as a superstar, but for better or worse, it did. Suddenly, Kobe went from being a Jordan imitator to being his own person. He became three-dimensional, and beyond the smiles and game-winning shots, Kobe's persona took on a darker tone that finally made him unique, but also rendered him perplexing (and polarizing) to just about everyone.

So what if none of it had ever happened?

Assuming his on-court career progressed the same way, would we look at him the way we looked at Jordan once? On the court, he's in similar territory. His game-winners have become routine, he's carried the Lakers the past few years, and his basketball legacy is beyond reproach. And yet, because of the rape trial and all the character studies it spurred, Kobe's looked upon more as a eternal mystery than a living legend.

If that rape trial never happens, a generation of fans doesn't turn its back on Kobe, and given the exposure provided by the contemporary media and, again, his exploits on the court, we're probably talking about one of the most popular players in history. Instead, the next generation was ushered in earlier than expected, and guys like Lebron, Dwight Howard, and Carmelo Anthony shared the stage with Kobe, even though Kobe's career dwarfs all of them.

The rape trial made Kobe three-dimensional, but it also made him one of the most divisive figures in NBA history. So today, as we watch Kobe cement his basketball legacy more and more with each jaw-dropping game-winner, it's hard not to wonder whether he could have completely owned this generation if it hadn't been for that one gigantic, disastrous mistake.

As much as anything in Jadakiss' song, that Kobe line still resonates today. Why, Kobe? 96304830_medium

 

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Jadakiss featuring Anthony Hamilton, "Why"