That Championship Season

Music, movies, TV -- everybody's following the bouncing ball

The CD is part of a package that includes a collector's basketball card and an insert promoting the arcade/ home video game NBA Jam, which depicts a future in which players literally can fly. The Jam concept was born out of the slam-dunk contests held during the NBA's annual All-Star Game. Says Land: "We look at that and say, 'Let's put on the event -- and can we bring it to Australia, can we make it into a video, a CD?' In everything we do here, we try to extend the life of the idea." MCA puts it in colder terms: "The album and the full-length home video are part of a wider integrated marketing program by the NBA, centered on the 'jam session' theme. The program includes a number of licensed products, national media, event marketing, and other cross-promotional efforts."

The movie The Air Up There, with a soundtrack drawn mostly from African musicians, found another angle on blacktop drama. It addresses recruiting, primarily the efforts of a wanna-be head coach who visits the cradle of civilization to find a giant postup player. The protagonist (played by Kevin Bacon) follows the path already taken by several NBA teams, searching Africa for tall talent: Houston Rockets superstar center Hakeem Olajuwon came from Nigeria. Denver's big man, Dikembe Mutombo, is from Zaire. Manute Bol, though no star, is certainly tall enough A he was recruited from the Sudan.

Another recent movie, Paramount's Blue Chips, actually was written twelve years ago. It, too, deals with recruiting and a coach's moral travails in that area. The writer, Ron Shelton, also penned White Men Can't Jump, which, in a not very insightful way, touched on the race issue faced by a sport in which the majority of the players are members of an ethnic minority. Bob Cousy, who couldn't jump but remains a legend of The Game, appears in Blue Chips, which tackles some of the same themes as Cousy's book The Killer Instinct, namely the conflict wrought by the money-versus-sport dilemma. Shaquille O'Neal and his teammate, rookie sensation Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway, also have prominent roles. The movie's score, available from MCA, was put together by Nile Rodgers and Jeff Beck.

There have been basketball-theme movies over the years -- That Championship Season, Hoosiers, Chu Chu and the Philly Flash A but never in packs like this year. And the music world has never become so involved. Hip-hop is a natural partner for b-ball, and not just because of the racial aspects. Many of the kids making a fortune in rap came up the same way as a number of NBA stars; there exist shared roots and a shared spirit, plus a direct connection represented by the grooving-then-exploding pace of both the music and the sport. There is also something anti-establishment about The Game, which despite its popularity has never been dubbed America's pastime. And as with music, in the ball biz the odds of success are long.

But for the chosen few, the glory is limitless. "During the Super Bowl," says the NBA's Peter Land, "there were seven [endorsement commercial] spots, five of which featured basketball players. I think that speaks to the popularity of our players. TV has certainly been kind to basketball and the players' personalities. You know what Q ratings are?" he asks, referring to a system used to rate the "likability" of television personalities. "Well, in the Q ratings, among athletes, basketball has six of the top ten."

No wonder Tha Dogg Pound references the line "I got my mind on my money and my money on my mind" in "Big Pimpin'" on the Above the Rim CD.

A while ago streetballer and Natural Causes manager Keith Schantz was eating lunch in a North Miami restaurant. His band was busy at Criteria (a studio that for years has had a b-ball hoop set up in its parking lot) cutting some tracks for Atlantic Records. It was an exciting time for the rock group, and Schantz was overseeing the dangling carrot of major-league stardom. The subject of hoops came up, and Schantz revealed something surprising and thought-provoking. "If I had to choose between rock and roll and basketball, I'm not sure which one I'd take."

The choice is becoming less difficult. More and more the game of grace and subtlety is becoming the gold corporate America loves to dig for, the same vein mined by popular music for decades. And that raises the biggest question: Will success spoil the sport


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