As the Gilbert Arenas saga evolves from comedy to tragedy, a familiar topic is once again linked to the NBA. The ever present Hip-Hop culture once again surfaces as a catch all for the actions of Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton. Somewhere along the line David Stern and other league executives decided to marry the NBA to hip-hop and, but clearly they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.
Given recent player actions, it seems as though the dark side of hip-hop has also managed to infiltrate the league. With its “bling-bling” gaudiness and “I gotta get paid” ruthlessness, this culture isn’t exactly synonymous with the average NBA fan. To the NBA’s credit, welcoming the music of Will Smith and L.L Cool J is a terrific marketing move, one certain to help the league resonate with younger fans. However, when welcoming the mainstream side of hip-hop, the NBA also opened the door for violence, drug-abuse, gang related sub-culture, and other misnomers of traditional thug life personified by players such as Allen Iverson. When he entered the league, Iverson was the poster boy for this thug life ruthlessness; he was a walking middle finger pointed directly at David Stern and his efforts to improve the image of the league.
While it may seem like nonsense to most, all of this is relevant because this is where NBA players live. The majority of NBA players do not grow up in middle class suburbs; they are raised in the gang infested neighborhoods of inner city America. It should come as no surprise to a true NBA junkie that Gilbert Arenas thought it was okay to carry his guns in the Wizards locker room. Those familiar with the ilk of hip-hop culture will understand why Javaris Crittenton thought it was okay to wave a loaded handgun in Arenas face, or even why Ron Artest thought it was okay to head into the stands whit his fists closed, looking to pummel a fan.
NBA players who live the hip-hop life live a life predicated on getting respect at any cost. This includes waving a loaded firearm in a teammates’ face or going after a fan in the stands, simply because somebody disrespected you.
It should be noted though that the NBA never intended for this side of hip-hop to permeate the league. However, all fans are aware of the increased presence of this “street-code” within the game of basketball. Surely, David Stern and other league executives aren’t well versed in the culture of “Stuntin” or “Ridin’ Dirty.” Then again, maybe they are. Can’t you see Commissioner Stern driving to his office in a 73’ Impala, windows rolled down, NWA’s “Fuck The Police” blasting through the stereo, yeah, neither can I. More importantly though, this sub-culture is alienating casual fans from the game.
It is increasingly difficult for fans to relate to players like Vince Carter, who, in 2004, was banned from wearing headphones during warm-ups. The inference from Carter is that he wants to block out the fans, and his teammates, right until the opening tip. Or take Latrell Sprewell for example; who foolishly indicated that he would need more that $10 million a year to “feed his family.” Are you serious?
Fans, for their $80 tickets, would at least like to know that the players are interested in being there, interested in connecting with the folks who make it possible for them to coast through their adult lives. How are fans supposed to connect with the sleepy-eyed Tracy McGrady, who looks and sounds like he would rather be at his palatial Houston home in bed? (Trust me, the place is huge, I played golf at the Country Club right directly behind his house.)
The story surrounding Arenas and Crittenton, and the past actions of players such as Artest and Sprewell suggest a lack of professionalism associated with players preoccupied with the “thug life.”
It would be unfair to discuss this issue without noting that, for many of these players, this is the life that they know. Many players who grow up in inner city housing projects witness gang violence first hand. Take a moment to examine the childhood of players such as Lamar Odom, Carmelo Anthony, and even Gilbert Arenas; these are men who grew up with nothing, who grew up with no direction. These men grow up without mothers and fathers and like so many other inner city youth, succumb to dealing drugs or joining a gang just to survive. (Odom, whose father was a heroin addict, lost his mother to colon cancer at age 12. He credits his grandmother for keeping him out of trouble as a boy in his Queens neighborhood.)
Upon entering the league, no real efforts are made to remove gang culture from these players’ lives. Sure, we have a dress code, a code of conduct, and a rookie symposium, but even so, this gang culture never disappears. Other than these few things, efforts to brandish gang culture from the NBA have been futile. In my opinion, a greater effort needs to be made to educate players about professional conduct and the expectations associated with playing professional basketball. Perhaps a more comprehensive rookie symposium that lasts for the duration of a players’ rookie season would help. It is, at the end of the day, a privilege to play in the NBA, not a right.