That Championship Season

It was one of those silly moments in musical history, a throwaway novelty song performed by a duo of comedians. It was a joke, son. And yet a few of us still get the shivers just thinking about it. For some of us it wasn't just a goofy spoof, it was the Holy Grail writ in funny character voices: "Basketball Jones," released by Cheech y Chong in the early Seventies.

And now, halfway through the Nineties, basketball junkies A those of us who still have the jones, who appreciate on an emotional level the game's unique combination of oblique subtleties and in-your-face action A are seeing our game out-jumping all other sports in a more palpable way: It has become big money. Much of the hoopla is a byproduct of the marriage of the NBA and popular-entertainment culture; movies, music, and of course television have all bought in to the allure of The Game. "Three basketball-themed movies just in the past few months speaks to its popularity," comments Peter Land, a marketing director for the NBA. "Even back in [the late Seventies, before the boom], CBS still paid us $74 million [for broadcast rights to games]. The network obviously thought it was of value. Now NBC pays $750 million on the contract that runs through the '97-'98 season, plus $52 million from [cable station] TNT."

What brought basketball into the lane of pop-culture profitability? Essentially, three men. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. The first two enjoyed a longstanding rivalry that attracted attention in the way big boxing matches and Super Bowls do, which the league and various corporate sponsors fostered and exploited. Michael Jordan was the next step, the man who literally could do it all (except maybe play major-league baseball). With the departure of the big three, the NBA has relied on a new batch of fresh blood (Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Johnson, David Robinson, Chris Webber, Sean Kemp, et al.) and the revitalized games of veterans such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Scottie Pippen. They have not disappointed.

But there's more money than broadcasting and advertising revenues. About twelve years ago the league established an entire division A NBA Entertainment, Inc. A devoted to what Land calls "extending the reach" of basketball and its star players. The weekly show Inside Stuff and its Japanese spinoff are produced by the league. The famous "I Love This Game" TV spots A in which pop celebs of all stripes proclaim their devotion A are also the work of NBA Entertainment. And all those specials on MTV.

Yes, MTV. It didn't take long for the vid channel to realize that the NBA now skews to a young demographic, that the sport's popularity among teens is remarkable, or, in Land's word, "exciting." Or: profitable.

With the lure of such riches the music industry had to get a hand in. The most obvious fusion is Shaquille O'Neal's recent Shaq Diesel rap CD, on which the oversize, underage Orlando Magic superstar demonstrates that it's probably not a bad thing he has a basketball career to fall back on.

A bigger success story is Above the Rim, a movie soundtrack released by Death Row/Interscope two months ago that shot to the top of the R&B and pop charts. The hot sales are certainly attributable in part to the fact that Snoop Dogg and Tha Dogg Pound are all over the record, and they have the golden touch.

Coupled with the film's somewhat smarmy plot, the Above the Rim CD raises the pivotal question about hoops: Is it spiritual or simply another fine way to stuff a wallet? The movie's story, such as it is, was derived from Harlem street-ball shootouts at Rucker's Playground, named for the late Holcombe Rucker, a recreation supervisor in New York City's parks department who formed a summer league in the Fifties. His goal, way ahead of its time, was to give inner-city kids something to do, something to be involved in, something to be proud of. To bolster his program he persuaded NBA stars to visit the youngsters. The movie is quick to note that the NBA carrot is rarely attainable, that you'd better get that education, that you should take from the game something more than a dream of riches.

Eventually the Rucker Playground became a hot spot where, during the summer off-season, pros such as Dr. J and Wilt Chamberlain would come to play against amateur competition of the highest caliber. One playground star, "Pee-Wee" Kirkland, reportedly was offered a contract with the Chicago Bulls, which he declined because he felt he could make more money hustling in pickup games. Still, it came down to cash, which remains a troubling aspect of Rucker's vision. In The Game, it's called control -- you control the game, you never let it control you. Sometimes that lesson gets lost, with the money distracting the naive from both their on-court performance and off-court real life.

The popularity of the Above the Rim CD might be due to the fact that it was a movie soundtrack, or so says a spokesman for MCA, which, in what Peter Land calls "a joint venture" with NBA Entertainment, released an album titled NBA Jam Session. "Ours came out a while ago, and it wasn't tied in to a movie," says the MCA flack. "It was something we did reflecting the NBA's uses of popular music. And it has not done as well as we hoped." Though not as lucrative, Jam Session is far more musically compelling than Above the Rim A at least for b-ball players A with pump-you-up songs such as the title track (performed by Heavy D, The Notorious B.I.G., and Troo-Kula), Wells's "Out of Control," and a remix of Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rim Shaker" (the one with the zoom-zooma-zoom in the boom boom...check, one-two).

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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