There was not a singular epiphany, not a moment in time when Kurtis Blow turned to those around him and said something like, "We just made history, baby!" or "We're paving the way for Deion Sanders!"
No, 20 years ago Blow was simply a very popular New York City rapper looking for a new subject for which to sling verses. He had scored several hits before, most notably "The Breaks," but now he was in a rut. Blow had rapped about his impressive microphone skills. He had rapped about women, about wealth, about the streets. Heck, even about Christmas. What could possibly be left?
Then, one day, it hit him. Growing up in Harlem, Blow and his best friend William Waring used to spend hours upon hours debating the merits of their favorite basketball players and teams. Blow loved the Knicks. Waring didn't. Blow thought Julius Erving was the greatest ever. Waring was more of an Oscar Robertson guy. Blow was Wilt, Waring was Russell. On and on the arguments went, throughout the nights, weeks and years.
"In the black community, basketball was the No. 1 sport," Blow said. "It was my passion. So I started thinking about the old days on the block. The idea was, 'Why not put those two loves together -- basketball and rap -- and make a song?'"
The end product, a 1984 tune appropriately titled "Basketball," is cheesy, silly and simplistic. It also happens to be one of the all-time influential rhymes; a song that took Blow from rap star to rap legend. The opening verse is one of the most famous in the genre's relatively brief history ...
Basketball is my favorite sport.
I like the way they dribble up and down the court.
Just like I'm the king on the microphone.
So is Dr. J and Moses Malone.
Before Blow came along, the ties between sports and rap were thinner than Manute Bol's pinky. Yes, in the seminal "Rapper's Delight," Big Bank Hank slings, "I got a color TV, so I can see the Knicks play basketball."
And yes, many an early-'80s inner-city basketball court would feature two hoops, 10 players and a boombox blaring Grandmaster Flash or Run DMC. But otherwise, sports were sports and rap was rap, and the two existed comfortably and separately in their own little worlds.
In other words, everything -- absolutely everything -- has changed.
Athletes get bad rap
Imagine that you are sitting in Continental Airlines Arena for a game between the New Jersey Nets and the Charlotte Bobcats, the first-year NBA expansion team. In a way, the year could be 1994, 1984 or even 1974.
Concessionaires peddle overpriced soda and popcorn. There's the thump-thump- thump of basketball hitting wood; the squeak-squeak- squeak of sneakers against the floor. Large men sign autographs for little kids. TV cameras are stationed courtside. Strobes flash from above. It's the NBA you've always known and loved.
As the Nets begin their pregame layup drill, the music blasts at ear-numbing decibels. First, Tupac's "U Wonder Why." Then Biggie's "Hypnotize." Then DMX. And Eminem. And 50 Cent. As Richard Jefferson follows Jason Kidd, who follows Jason Collins, who follows Ron Mercer, you notice that every player sports XXXXL shorts, dangling down to their ankles.
You glance to the left of the court and see one of the Nets' owners speaking to his counterpart with the Bobcats. No, not Bruce Ratner and Bob Johnson -- millionaire rappers Jay-Z and Nelly, respectively.
This is what it has come to in 20 years. From the throwback Mitchell & Ness athletic jerseys that have engulfed hip-hop nation to Shaquille O'Neal's five rap CDs to rappers owning sports franchises and athletes owning record labels to Snoop Dogg's new boxing video game and Major League Baseball- sponsored summer tour, sports is rap and rap is sports.
"Look, I knew hip-hop was malleable," said Blow, now the host of a daily old-school rap show on Sirius Satellite Radio. "And I knew hip-hop would eventually infiltrate the mainstream. But did I think sports and music would collide like they have? I'd be lying if I said yes."
What began with Blow took off tenuously. One year after "Basketball" peaked at No. 71 on the Billboard charts, a trio of Nashville-based songwriters wrote "The Kingfish Shuffle," a spoof rap based on George "Kingfish" Stevens of the TV show "Amos 'n' Andy." When Dick Meyer of the Chicago- based Red Label Records heard a demo of the song, he purchased the rights, then changed the lyrics. The result was "Super Bowl Shuffle," recorded by the Chicago Bears midway through their 1985 championship season.
At first, the Shuffle was a semi-gag, a way to do some innocent boasting while raising money for a local charity. "We certainly weren't trying to sell records," said Willie Gault, a wide receiver on the '85 Bears. "It was just for fun. But then everything went boom!"
Rap music and sports create a fusion of cultures
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