Basketball and pop culture have a long history together. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that having the league’s most entertaining and glamorous squad in the entertainment capital of the world only helped to blur the line between the two. The Showtime Lakers were such a hit that it wasn’t a surprise when the players began getting parts in movies and being referenced in songs.
This is the first installment in a series about the Lakers and their imprint on pop culture.
First up, the 1980s.
Hip-hop and basketball seem to go together better than any music/sports pairing. Perhaps it’s because both share a certain creativity and improvisation born on the playgrounds. Maybe it’s because both require a certain confidence and authenticity to succeed, where phonies are sniffed out almost immediately. When the ball or the microphone is in your hand, all eyes are on you.
Football players line up eleven-deep, hidden behind shoulder pads, helmets, and face masks — almost like anonymous chess pieces. Baseball players wear hats and sunglasses, practically camouflaged by the dirt and grass surrounding them. But the basketball player is exposed. No hat, helmet, or sunglasses. Just a tank top, a pair of shorts, and sneakers.
Outside of boxing, it might be the closest thing an athlete can get to experiencing what it’s like to perform on a stage in front of thousands. There’s an intimacy with basketball that no other team sport can compare to. When there’s three seconds left in the game and the Lakers are down by one, it’s not just that all eyes are on Kobe Bryant. We can see the look of determination or fear on his face, or how much sweat is dripping off his brow.
Make it and we see the joy. Miss it and we see the pain.
There’s a long-held belief that all rappers want to be basketball players and all basketball players want to be rappers. Never was this more evident than in 1994 when Epic Records released B-Ball’s Best Kept Secret, a 16-track compilation of rap songs featuring the likes of Cedric Ceballos, Dana Barros, Jason Kidd, Chris Mills, and Brian Shaw.
The NBA seemed to have returned the favor when the Charlotte Hornets gave Percy Miller, aka rapper Master P, a training camp invite in 1999.
No sport or it’s athletes have been shouted out more on wax than basketball players and no team has been shouted out more than the Los Angeles Lakers. We can go back to 1984 when Kurtis Blow released “Basketball”:
“And Wilt, Big O, and Jerry West,
To play Basketball at it’s very best,
Basketball has always been my thing,
I like Magic, Bird, and Bernard King,
And number 33, my man Kareem,
Is the center on my starting team.”
Three lines, four Lakers.
Lakers references aren’t exclusive to hip-hop either. The Red Hot Chili Peppers released “Magic Johnson” in 1989 off their album Mother’s Milk, a funk/punk hybrid with a bit of a rap cadence, not unlike early Beastie Boys. The band proved their superfan credentials when they referenced Magic Johnson as “Buck” — the name only his teammates referred to him by:
“M-a-g-i-c see you on the court
Buck has come to play his way and his way is to thwart
M-a-g-i-c magic of the buck
Other teams pray for dreams
But he don’t give a f***”
But it wasn’t just in music where the Lakers were beginning to make their imprint. They touched on all areas of pop culture. Who can forget Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scene-stealing turn in Airplane! in 1980?
Or what about Chevy Chase’s dream sequence in 1985’s Fletch, including play-by-play from the legend, Chick Hearn?
There probably wasn’t a better representation of the Lakers, pop culture, and hip-hop colliding in the 80s than 1987’s “Just Say No,” the Lakers’ answer to the Chicago Bears’ “Super Bowl Shuffle.” The anti-drug PSA featured verses from Kareem, Magic, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, James Worthy, Wes Matthews, Mike Smrek, Adrian Branch, Kurt Rambis, and even Pat Riley (!!!).
Almost every member of the Showtime Lakers has an IMDB page. James Worthy once appeared on an episode of Webster, Kurt Rambis can be seen in an episode of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Jamaal Wilkes was on Trapper John, M.D., and Chick Hearn has nearly 70 TV and movie credits to his name.
The 80s were nothing compared to what was to come in the 90s and beyond. Click here for Pt. II.