The cultural phenomenon that is the NBA
How the NBA has become the most culturally relevant major league
Words— Marc Richardson
Pick up any newspaper and the amount of coverage devoted to sports—compared to say, international politics—can seem a bit overblown. But sports are popular. Like, really popular,—especially in North America, where the major sports leagues jockey for hierarchical supremacy. Generally, the NFL tends to reign supreme, owing perhaps to a short regular season—16 games—and the spectacle of the Super Bowl. But, the modern NFL, and most of its players, are dry: rosters are gargantuan, there’s relatively little action in a game, and player celebrations have been muted by the league. By contrast, the NBA is the undoubted king of cool when it comes to professional sports, captivating fans thanks in large part to the popular culture that permeates throughout the league. So, what exactly makes the NBA so cool?
It starts with the players — both on and off the court. Historically (read: before the nineties), the NBA was home to great individual athletes, from Kareem and Magic on the West Coast, to Larry Bird and Bill Russell on the East. While the league never lacked star power, the nineties offered the highest concentration of elite talent in the NBA. Thanks to a bit of luck, uber-watchable rivalries and individual performances coincided with increasingly available television broadcasts and predated ticket price inflation. In short: the NBA’s Golden Age was readily available for mass consumption and helped elevate the league to the forefront of the sporting conversation.
What’s become increasingly apparent —though it’s hardly a new phenomenon— is that the players’ influence extends beyond the hardwood. NBA players have seemingly always been more than just athletes. They’ve been bonafide personalities; athletes and socialites, and sometimes —for better or worse— it’s easy to forget which of those descriptors comes first. It’s a tradition that dates back to Clyde Frazier, the great New York Knicks point guard of the seventies. It’s a testament to his off-court persona that Frazier is as remembered for leading the Knicks to their only two titles as he is for his uniquely effervescent style and verbosity. In the four decades since Frazier introduced himself to NBA faithful, the league’s stars have followed in his footsteps, while also endearing themselves to the masses.
Take a player like LeBron James, for instance; yes, he’s the most dominant player of his generation, but he’s parlayed his on-court heroics into, among other things, a production company and used his stature to voice concerns about socio-political issues. But, what makes the players so exceedingly popular is that they come off as being not that much different than us less athletically-gifted heathens. There’s a camaraderie between players when they’re not on the court that makes them relatable — like a group of friends that you might have.
To boot, the league has become inextricably tied to fashion and streetwear in a way that draws fans away from the hardwood. Since Nike launched Michael Jordan’s signature sneaker line, NBA athletes have represented the pinnacle of athletic pitchmen and, thanks to the importance and prevalence of sneakers in streetwear and fashion, basketball-playing ambassadors have become cultural figures. Plus, no other leagues’ players devote as much attention to the clothes they wear before and after the game than the NBA’s — and, unlike movie stars walking down the red carpet in Tom Ford suits, the outfits are somewhat relatable and attainable. Fans feel close to the players because of this, and there’s a reason that even celebrities want to be basketball players. Rappers routinely name-drop the league and its players and even fellow athletes have professed their jealousy for the NBA’s culture.
On that front, the NBA stands head and shoulders above its fellow professional leagues. The NHL is entertaining, and counts many a celebrity fan —the Kings are a hot ticket in LA—, from actors to musicians, but lacks the attainability of the NBA. Drake isn’t rapping about wanting lace up his skates for the Maple Leafs — nor is he an ambassador. It’s indicative of the NBA’s accessibility playing into its appeal: most people have played basketball at least once, even those who are better musicians than athletes. And, because so many people understand the game and interact with it, the NBA is as much about the experience of playing as it is about watching.
To that point, the league’s high-profile fans have contributed to the cultural phenomenon that is the NBA. Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee are among the most recognizable—and longest tenured—court-side quote-unquote superfans, egging on the Lakers and Knicks, respectively. Lee was responsible for what is the greatest fan-player interaction in NBA history—and, one could argue, all of sports history. The filmmaker Lee was notorious for trash talking opposing players, with it coming to a boil during the 1994 Playoffs, when he engaged Reggie Miller and, by all accounts, inspired the Indiana Pacers shooting guard to unleash one of the great Playoff performances. Since then, the league has benefitted from having high-profile fans the likes of Jay-Z and Drake, who have been, respectively, part-owner of the Nets and ambassador for the Raptors. It’s part of what makes the NBA equal parts aspirational and attainable — you can be within mere feet of the game, while brushing shoulders with Drake… but for a price.
If you’re looking for a microcosm of what makes the NBA relevant, look no further than the league’s annual All-Star festivities. Yes there are feats of athleticism—well, usually—thanks to the Slam Dunk Contest and the highlight-packed formality of a game, but, more importantly, the league’s cultural imprint is on full display. There are celebrity-filled basketball games—sanctioned by the NBA, or by big-name sponsors like adidas—, concerts, and global product drops revolving around the weekend, not to mention community outreach events and swanky galas. While some have decried the lack of in-game competitiveness during All-Star Weekend—in both the pro and celebrity games—there’s no denying that it’s all representative of why the NBA is the king of cool: it’s about much, much more than basketball.
From the intersection of all of this emanates energy and exuberance. It’s almost like a viciously infectious circle: those that like the on-court product can’t help but be drawn to the off-court developments, and those paying attention to the off-court culture get drawn into the game itself. The nineties might be remembered as the NBA’s competitive Golden Age, but today represents its cultural zenith: a digestible, marketable on-court product elevated by involved players with off-court intangibles.
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