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.

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Greg Baker