Kurtis Blow: “Basketball”
One of the great songs from one of the great pioneers of hip-hop, “Basketball” is a song by a man who professes basketball to be his “favorite sport,” because, “I like the way they dribble up and down the court.” He breaks down all of his favorite offensive maneuvers: “I like slam dunks, take me to the hoop / My favorite play is the alley oop / I like the pick-and-roll / I like the give and go / Cause it’s basketball, Mr. Kurtis Blow.”
The rest of the song is all name drops of the best players of his day and the past, and they are all delivered in the over-annunciated, monosyllabic rhymes you would expect from a rap song from 1984. Just some of the players who get shout outs are “Dr. J” Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Pistol Pete Maravich, and Bill Russell.
The music video also features grown men dunking on what is clearly a six-foot rim with a camera angle designed to hide that fact.
Lil Bow Wow also recorded a version of the song for the 2002 film Like Mike, the story of a young man who gets Michael Jordan’s basketball powers when he his struck by lightning while trying to retrieve a pair of Jordan’s sneakers from a power line. But Lil Bow Wow’s version lacks the same kind of lyricism required to rhyme names of famous players, and is instead built upon standard rap braggadocio about how he is the best basketball player there is.
The Beastie Boys: “Tough Guy”
Everyone has played with that one guy who takes pickup basketball far too seriously. The Beasties certainly did, and penned this tune for those guys. Coming off their 1994 album Ill Communication, it is one of two hardcore punk songs that appear on the album, a throwback to the band’s early days before they started rapping.
The “Tough Guy” has all of the worst attributes of someone you hate to pay with. Elbows, eye pokes, moving picks, and overly physical play where they “throw me around like a bounce pass.” It also includes its share of name drops, saying this guy thinks he’s Shaq, but plays like the dirty Bill Laimbeer.
But this angry, loud, fast song poses a deep question for all of the “tough guys” who might hear it. “Tough guy, what you gotta prove?” It is a lesson that basketball in the park or the gym is supposed to be fun, and it is not cool to be the guy who ruins it.
Public Enemy: “He Got Game”
This song is not overtly about basketball, but it is the title track of a Spike Lee movie about basketball, which is good enough for me. Denzel Washington plays the father of Ray Allen’s character, the top basketball recruit in the country. Washington is in prison for murder, but the governor offers to commute Washington’s sentence if he can get his son to play for the governor’s alma mater (which feels like it is probably a NCAA recruiting violation).
Anyways, the soundtrack for the film was done by Public Enemy, one of the greatest rap groups ever. The title track strays from the abrasive and crowded sound the Bomb Squad produced for Public Enemy records. Instead, the song is built around a sample of Neil Young’s guitar harmonics intro from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and even features a Stephen Stills cameo performance of the song’s first verse and chorus.
While the basketball connection here might seem tedious, this song takes a look at why we play sports like basketball in the first place. Everyone—you, me, he, she, they—might “have game” and be able to light up the court, or the microphone, or anything else, “but damn the game if it don’t mean nuttin’.” Why do we play basketball? Everyone has their own answer, and that answer is what matters.
High School Musical Cast: “Get’cha Head in the Game”
What to do when you are the star basketball player, but the big playoff game is at the same time as the school musical where you get to sing a duet with the cute girl you have a crush on? Apparently the answer is self affirmations about the primacy of basketball in your life so you do not disappoint your coach, who is also your dad. At least, that is what High School Musical (2006), the great bildungsroman of our time, says you should do.
(Aside: Sure the film comes around at the end and has a positive message about breaking out of your defined social roles and doing what you love, but this song really does the opposite. Troy (Zac Efron) is acting totally on the expectations of his peers, and not on his own desire.)
The beat of this is song is actually pretty interesting, and is built around dribbling balls and squeaking sneakers that coincide with the choreography on screen. The opening lyrics even describe the practice drill that Troy is doing, but after that it is really just repetition of the title lyric. Also, apparently the best way to get a basketball crowd to go wild is to grab a rebound. Guess that is high school basketball in Albuquerque for you.
Gatorade: “Be Like Mike”
This gem actually comes from a 1992 Gatorade commercial starring Michael Jordan. Bernie Pitzel, an advertising executive, wanted to use the song “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book (1967), but did not want to pay royalties to Disney. Instead, he penned his own words about dreaming big and reaching for your dreams (and a bottle of Gatorade).
“Sometimes I dream / That he is me / You’ve got to see that’s how I dream to be.” The song is all about wanting to be as good as Jordan, if only for a day, so you could fly through the air.
The song has a fun, tropical sounding beat, replete with Carnival whistles and flutes and children singing. The song gets you moving and grooving, the same way Jordan does on the court in the highlights shown in the commercial. With the words, the whole thing sounds very uplifting and fun, the way watching our favorite basketball players is supposed to make us feel.