John Wooden x Hip Hop.
Read time - 4 minutes
From the author of The Poetics of Hip Hop and the New York Times bestseller One Day It’ll All Make Sense, a memoir for the rapper and actor Common.
If basketball had a soundtrack, what would it sound like? The trumpet great Wynton Marsalis argues that the rhythms and movements of the sport are akin to jazz. Spike Lee makes the case for classical with the brilliant scene from his 1998 film He Got Game, scoring a Rucker Park pick-up game to the strains of Aaron Copeland’s “John Henry.” But basketball’s indisputable soundtrack is hip hop.
Hip hop’s rise from a 1970s grassroots movement to a multi-billion dollar industry follows the arc of the NBA over that same period of time: the mid-1980s rebirth of the league with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; the 1990s mainstreaming revolution of Michael Jordan; the present day media saturation of LeBron James and Stephen Curry. Basketball players at all levels are hip hop’s greatest advocates, the music blaring from locker rooms and seeping out of oversized headphones cupped against the ears or casually draped around the neck. Hip hop’s style has affected the way that several generations of ballplayers have cut their hair, worn their shorts, and tailored their suits. And basketball has continually supplied rap with new names to check, new metaphors to spit, new ways of understanding rap’s own competitive game.
Basketball and hip hop are most closely linked by this: Both are public displays of skill earned through private labor. When Steph Curry dekes a defender then steps back and nails a fall-away three, we call it a SportsCenter highlight. When Kendrick Lamar spits sixteen bars off the top of the dome, we call it a freestyle. But what the crowd doesn’t see in both cases are the countless hours that went into honing these crafts—learning how to orchestrate muscle and tendon in balanced and fluid motion, learning how syllables and sounds fit together in a flow. Call it a freestyle, but no style is free.
Basketball and hip hop are united through an affinity of style, but also of substance. This insight came to me from an unexpected source: a video clip of a Bay Area rapper perched atop a basketball and spitting a verse laced with the language of one of the sport’s greatest figures: the legendary coach John Wooden. The clip was a response to a call put out by Fabled, a challenge to “use the poetics of hip hop as a way to introduce [John Wooden’s] wisdom to new generations”. Fabled is launching the John Wooden project—a mix of style and substance, like the man himself and the game that he loved.
You’ll sometimes hear Wooden’s name dropped in rap lyrics, always as a synonym for success. On “Return of Simba,” for instance, J. Cole rhymes: “I want Jordan numbers, LeBron footin / Can’t guard me—Vince Lombardi, John Wooden.” Rap has always been an aspirational art form with a “started from the bottom now we’re here” ethos. Who wouldn’t want to aspire to the kind of excellence Wooden achieved in his profession? When he retired in 1975 after twenty-seven seasons as UCLA’s coach, ending on an unprecedented run of ten NCAA titles in his last twelve years, Wooden had earned distinction as the greatest coach in the history of sport. If anyone should have a sneaker, it’s John Wooden. Wooden unites basketball’s past, present, and future. Wooden is now.
Still, Wooden is most often captured in the black and white tones of old game footage. There he is with a lanky Lew Alcindor before Alcindor became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. There he is again with a wild-haired giant named Bill Walton years before Walton’s remarkable NBA career was cut short by injury and he found a new home as a loquacious voice in the broadcast booth. Walton has emerged as a central figure in Wooden’s life after death, a Plato to Wooden’s Socrates, passing Wooden’s wisdom on to new generations and spreading it across national TV airwaves.
Whole books have been dedicated to “Woodenisms,” pithy sayings that carry a general truth. Be quick, but don’t hurry. Success is never final; failure is never fatal. These words hold for hip hop as much as they do for basketball. In fact, Wooden’s words hardly need remixing. They thread seamlessly into the texture of rap’s beats and rhymes. When Wooden says “It isn’t what you do, but how you do it,” you can hear the legendary Rakim rapping “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” Wooden reminds us “Little things make big things happen,” while Nas boasts “Now I’m into big things.”
John Wooden passed away on June 4, 2010. He was ninety-nine years old. His legacy lives on in the NCAA most outstanding player award that bears his name. It lives on in his legacy of leadership, teaching, and strategy passed down by those that he taught the game, by those who they taught, and on down the line. Wooden’s legacy also lives on in the unexpected confluence of two things he loved: the language of poetry and the discipline of basketball fused together in the idiom of hip hop.
Maybe the best embodiment of Coach Wooden, hip hop, and basketball today is Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry. Curry is Wooden’s kind of player, someone who knows that flash only comes after fundamentals. He’s also a child of the hip hop generation, whose pregame ritual includes a playlist with tracks by rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Lecrae.
With Curry’s slight build and modest (by NBA standards) stature, he might seem like an underdog rather than the reigning NBA champion that he is. But then, as Wooden reminds us, “It’s not how big you are, it’s how big you play.” It’s not hard to imagine that Curry has heard those very words from one of his coaches, Luke Walton, Bill’s son, who was weaned on Woodenisms. Wooden’s legacy of wisdom lives on. Wooden was then. Wooden is now.
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