Basketball is over 80 years older than hip-hop. However, over last 30 years these two entities have fed off each other’s cultures in more ways than one. This has been largely attributed to the fact that both flourish where the population is mainly black, urban and youthful. The connections between these two cultures have grown from urban youth just infusing sneakers (worn by pros to play) into their everyday gear to rap moguls who grew up in the streets where hip-hop was birthed owning shares of NBA teams.
Over the next few months, I’ll try to break down the various connections in different posts. In this particular post, will concentrate on the connection the cultures have created in fashion over the last three decades.
The connections in fashion started with the shoe game. The Puma Clyde made famous by its endorsement of two-time NBA champion Walt Frazier was probably the first sneaker to be loved by youth in both cultures. First of all the Clydes that usually came in suede and a ton of colorways were easy to fall in love with for hip-hop youth that were concerned with the idea of staying fresh at all times. Not only could you get a burgundy and white Clyde to go with your burgundy silk top and Kangol hat, some B-boys actually found the sneakers to be a good fit to breakdance in. It automatically became part of their everyday wear since there was no need to carry along an extra pair of shoes to just to dance in.
Then came what most consider as the most iconic sneaker of all time; the Nike Air Force 1s. Nike released them briefly in ‘82 and discontinued them in ‘83. They were reintroduced in 1986 and since then close to 2000 colorways of the sneaker has been released. The all whites nicknamed the Uptowns made popular by hip-hop heads and ballers in New York are still considered a must have for any sneaker connoisseur.
Many rap songs have been about sneakers, the chief of which is Run DMC’s My Adidas that was released in 1986 ahead of their third album. The song reportedly made Adidas give Run DMC a million dollars in endorsements after an Adidas marketing manager witnessed thousands of youth at a concert held at Madison Square Garden wave their Adidas sneakers while they sang along.
The NBA’s introduction of a dress code in 2005 is viewed by many pundits as the most visible indication of hip-hop’s influence on basketball’s fashion culture. However, a careful look at events over the past decades reveal a relationship that had been in the making for a long time among urban youth. One that finally found its foot in NBA hall ways and at press conferences through players like Allen Iverson who went all out to represent the hip-hop culture. Many thought of him as the main target for the introduction of the dress code because of how heavily hip-hop influenced his fashion decisions and lifestyle; the braids, the baggy jeans, oversized jerseys and the accompanying blings.
However, the dress code that many found racist, was meant to distance the league from its then thuggish image according to then commissioner, David Stern. Many also thought the NBA was trippin’ when it introduced the dress code because the league benefitted significantly from hip-hop’s influence. Aside AI, the code affected a lot more players whose style decisions were influenced by hip-hop and the streetwear culture. Some of the most heavily hit were Rip Hamilton, Shaquille O’neal, Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace and Paul Pierce.
Michael Jordan chose to wear longer, baggy shorts though he played in an era when NBA players were still wearing short shorts. For a player whose clean cut off court persona wasn’t thought of as hip-hop influenced, his choice of shorts size was clearly influenced by it; by 1990 hip-hop’s cloth of choice was baggy – head to toe. MJ’s shorts size found its way into college basketball through the University of Michigan’s Fab Five.
The Fab Five showed the world that they loved hip-hop and were unapologetic about it; wearing baggy shorts, black sneakers with black socks and telling reporters that their music of choice was hip-hop, specifically EPMD’s latest album at the time – Business As Usual. They did this at a time when alumni of their school were sending hate and racist letters to their coach to get them expelled because they weren’t a good representation of the university’s image. Some of the letters were extreme and went as far as referring to the boys as the N-word.
Youth all over the globe were paying attention to these developments; Ghana wasn’t left out. This takes me back to the late 90s when my love for the sport was still being birth. Me and my siblings spent our long vacations with our grandmother in North Kaneshie. The house had a lot of kids and we were allowed to get out of the house whenever we wanted. Along with the other boys in the household, I spent several evenings watching the older guys play pick-up at the now deteriorated Kaneshie Sports Complex basketball court.
At the time, I hadn’t listened to a lot of hip-hop apart from what was played occasionally on radio. I’m not sure I had even watched a hip-hop music video then but I knew there was something different about how these guys dressed. I didn’t even know it had anything to do with hip-hop. But looking back, the sagged baggy shorts, the durags, headbands and the general idea of staying fresh even on and off court at all times are ideals I can now boldly say these guys picked up from NBA players who we now know were influenced by hip-hop.
There was an even larger explosion of this trend with the onset of the annual high school basketball tournaments every December in the early 2000s championed by the now defunct Choice FM. If you were in high school and thought you were fresh enough, you had to be at the Aviation Social Centre to show your boys and girls how strong your hip-hop apparel game was. Many kids would show up at the event not watch the basketball games, but just to show off their fresh clothes and sneakers while hanging out with their schoolmates. When school resumed, conversations would go on for weeks about who had the best or wackiest outfits; you just couldn’t avoid it. This translated into how high school kids would dress when they attended or came on stage to perform for their peers during entertainment shows.
There are probably millions of stories like these that can be shared across the globe but what does it mean? For me it meant that, hip-hop’s defiance when it came to self expression was one that basketball players from the playgrounds to the pros could relate to and had to embrace. After all, not many other sports give players the freedom to express themselves as much as basketball does. Also, who wouldn’t want to listen to music that is made by people who look and live like them; people who understand their everyday struggles in life and ambition to beat the system and be the best at one’s craft?