Media Circus: Tack attack

On its 50th birthday, the celebrity-obsessed marketing machine known as the NBA has become a lurid billboard for lame rappers and mediocre freaks.

By Joyce Millman
Published December 12, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

the National Basketball Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary season with a barrage of super-duper special events and marketing tie-ins. But it's all a bit like Las Vegas putting up Christmas lights: How would you know?

Under commissioner David Stern, the NBA's popularity has exploded: TV ratings have soared, seven new franchises have been added to the league, Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have become industries unto themselves. While baseball has become a faceless game of free agents playing musical chairs, the NBA is now the most celeb-oriented and glittering of pro sports. No team is without a huge, heavily merchandised money player, and that's not Money as in Michael, that's money as in, "Gimme."

Do I sound disgruntled? I am. I grew up in pre-Fleet Center Boston, and the Celtics were my team. No flash, no pizzazz, no laser-lit introductions, no cheerleaders and as for music, there was one geezer at the organ, pal, and he wasn't takin' requests. So I may be naturally inclined to view the bigger, better NBA as Not A Good Thing. But I ask you: Have you looked at the standings lately? The suck factor has increased greatly with the coming of the Grizzlies and the T'Wolves and the Jurassic Park Action Figures, or whatever that Toronto team is called. And is there anybody out there who really enjoys hearing Shaq Diesel rap? Isn't it enough to just PLAY BASKETBALL anymore? The answer, sadly, is no. For many players, the game has become a mere port of entry, a stop along the way to the more fascinating and less exhausting world of Professional Celebrity-ism.

It is both ironic and fitting that in this NBA celebration year, the Bulls' Dennis Rodman -- the NBA's Frankenstein monster -- has fulfilled his destiny and become an MTV personality. His weekly show, "The Rodman World Tour" (which airs 10 p.m. Sundays), is billed as a talk show, but it's really more of a staged documentary -- sort of Madonna's "Truth or Dare" meets MTV's "Real World."

The December 8 premiere episode consisted of little more than Rodman talking about his "bad boy" self while minions coiffed, powdered and painted him for a photo shoot ("Gimme eyes, Dennis, oh yeah"), for which he donned many of the tiresomely "outrageous" gender-bending get-ups that have made him the worst-dressed drag queen in history. Rodman's schtick is depressingly clichid and derivative, stale Madonna exhibitionism crossed with cartoonish Mr. T bluster. "World Tour" leaves you with the overriding impression that even if it's all an act, Rodman is still a terribly lost soul screaming for attention. Previews of future episodes showed him fondling half-nude girls in a hot tub, shmoozing with Kelsey Grammer, riding motorcycles with Jay Leno and ducking into a restroom stall with someone of indeterminate gender. Let's just hope Rodman has enough energy left over to grab a few rebounds.

Look, I know that Rodman is not the first eccentric in the NBA's history -- he actually seems quite sane compared to Darryl Dawkins and his yarns about the planet Lovetron. And Shaq is not the first Lakers center with a hugely swelled head. (Wilt, meet your heir.) What's different is that the machinery now in place to create and sell sports superstars is so much more sophisticated and far-reaching. It reduces the players and the game to ubiquitous junk, more useless crap competing for your disposable income (and the income of those who barely have it to dispose).

There's a new music CD just out on Mercury Records called "The NBA at 50" which is basically a collection of songs associated with the league's "I Love This Game" commercials ("I'll Take You There," "Good Times," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"), many of them redone by (ka-ching, the cash register rings) Mercury artists. There are also snippets of play-by-play from classic NBA games, as well as new songs from Vanessa Williams and Crystal Waters.

As far as NBA promos go, the CD is rather modest -- quaint even. If you were a hoops fan in the early '80s, it might just make you cry, because it takes you back to the beginning of the end. You want to pin it down? OK: Marvin Gaye's epic voice and drum machine rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, included here in all its slow-groove, black pride ("O, say does my star spangled banner yet wave") majesty. Gaye's performance, which electrified the national TV audience and showed fellow recording artists that singing the anthem could be a pretty cool gig, brought together music and pro basketball in ways neither industry was prepared for. The two eyed each other's moves, learned from each other's marketing, targeted each other's audiences. In 1985, early rap star Kurtis Blow recorded "Basketball" (also included here), the unofficial anthem of the NBA, and the league's rappin' and-rockin', trash-talkin' b-ball era was upon us.

The story of how the NBA got carried away by the cult of personality is written in the distance between Blow's testimonials to the greats' on-court pyrotechnics -- "Tell me were you in the joint/ The night Wilt scored a hundred points/ When the Celtics won titles back-to-back/ And didn't give nobody no kind of fat/ When Dr. J shook the whole damn team/ With moves that came right out of a dream/ When Willis Reed stood so tall/ Playin' D with desire/ Yes! Basketball!" -- and Shaq's latest ode to himself, "You Can't Stop the Reign": "You know the name/Shaq aims to maintain/Money on the brain/Can't stop the reign."

Happy anniversary, NBA. What do you do for an encore?

Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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