African-American culture has evolved significantly in the past two decades. While the of African-Americans within the United States have changed substantially for the better, their cultural and institutional instincts can only be subjectively understood. One of the growing phenomenons of this era is the emergence of sports not only as part of their cultural legacy, but a defining factor in masculinity. This is no where more epitomized then the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers and the emergence of African-American sports stars as cultural icons for masculinity development. Basketball has not only become an escape for the perpetually poor and “ghetto rats,” but also a defining feature of masculinity within African-American communities. The rise of the Los Angeles Lakers and specifically Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, can be used to define a generation of African-Americans.
The following analysis will look at the cultural phenomenon of black masculinity as it is defined through the evolution of basketball into an almost defining form of masculinity within African-American culture. Basketball has transcended the development of networks and social apparatus to become an institutional concept of identity for the black community, not only has it impacted youth but is in the process of redefining traditional African-American values and attitudes.
The unprecedented success of the Lakers’ three championship runs had many consequences on the media, the players, and the youth culture that thrived on their heroes’ achievements. Michael Jordan once jokingly told Chicago Tribune reporter Bob Greene, “The media’s crazy, they never let you go. it’s like once they start following you, there’s no more privacy” (Greene, 190). Although Kobe Bryant and the Lakers did not garner the same media blitz that Jordan endured throughout his career, they definitely felt the glitz and glamour of public adoration. Kobe subsequently made twelve commercials for Reebok in the year after their first championship (Bucher 2004). He signed multimillion dollar contracts with four different companies including one with Adidas for 80 million dollars (Bucher 2004). Magazines from ESPN to GQ all fought to feature him, as his reputation and name became part of the image of American basketball. Perhaps to the outsider this media attention represents the height of fame and immortality, but the media business and sports marketing in particular have many downsides that few take the time to examine. In Kobe Bryant, the media created an icon out of a one-dimensional image. Although magazines and commercials made sure everyone was aware of Kobe’s bright smile and exceptional basketball abilities, they ignored his flaws as a player and as a person. Fans saw Kobe’s flashy drives to the basketball and thunderous dunks but ignored his selfish ball hogging and oftentimes unforgivable turnovers. Kobe’s image heralded in a new era of basketball, one that demanded one on one skill and superior athleticism rather than teamwork. The media “[took Kobe’s] best trait and amplified it a thousand times to the point where nothing else [mattered]” (Schaaf 30). Kobe’s marketing made him an international superstar, his fans recognized him for his on court heroics, but they never saw him as the vulnerable teenager or his immature behavior on and off the court. To the millions of American and international youth who watched Kobe’s highlights on ESPN, Kobe became synonymous with success. This is especially true of the international image of NBA basketball. The millions of viewers in the international community identify American basketball as uniquely individually oriented rather than team oriented. The media’s promotion of Kobe’s personal success establishes stereotypes of not only African-American basketball but American basketball in general.
The media hype changed both Kobe and his fans. For Kobe, the media forced him to develop a double consciousness. Just as Dubois claimed that the African-American had a “double life” where “double thoughts, double duties and double social classes give rise to hypocrisy and [social insecurity]” (Mohammed 17), Kobe developed a similar double consciousness in light of his media image. He saw himself as the vulnerable teenager with relatively little experience, and simultaneously as the that his Adidas commercials portrayed him to be. Since his status to his fans was one that is vastly more mature and different from his real life twenties lifestyle, Kobe’s identity crisis caused him to change his outward persona. The effects were evident in his new dress code, favoring the Jordanesque suit rather than his old throwback jerseys (Jackson 35). Kobe perceived his old friends as a link to his past, and their relationships deteriorated as he exchanged his close friend and agent of five years for MGC studios, a more renowned sports agency (Jackson 36). His personal makeover resulted from what his coach Phil Jackson calls, “the identity crisis of the modern athlete, on the one hand a bigger than life hero but also a fragile teenager with emotional and physical immaturities” (Jackson 202). Jackson, a nine time NBA Champion as a coach has seen the rise and fall of many great young talents and his analysis contributes to the growing acknowledgement of Kobe’s emotional and mental weaknesses. His tendency to try to win a game by himself and mistrust of teammates stems from a constant desire to be the best. In a sense, his fear was failing on the basketball court, because media attention and fan adulation became part of his personal definition of masculinity. Coming from a white collar life style and upper class environment, basketball fame represents Kobe’s attempt to reclaim his black identity and restore the self-confidence and identity that has been “diminished by the struggles woven into [his] double life as [a] black professional” (Mohammed 92). To counteract the millions of dollars that he makes from his profession, Kobe adopts the street style of basketball in order to embody the “black ideal” (Mohammed 92) and through his demeanor convey his black masculinity. Horace Grant, his teammate, noted that, “Kobe acts [defiantly], [speaks] jive, and was particularly aggressive on the court” (Jackson, 113); all symptoms of Kobe’s insecurity in his black identity and masculinity. Despite Kobe’s attempts to become more “black,” his personal double standard that he perceives the media thrusts on him leaves him unable to achieve a real awareness of his identity. In effect, Kobe plays for himself because he never fully comprehends who the new “he” is.
If Kobe’s masculinity conflict was isolated to him alone, then the impact might be negligible at best, but his fame has transcended his personal sphere and effects the millions of young fans who watch him play. His identity crisis has become a universal one as more and more young black athletes struggle to cope with their place in society. The previous generation of athletes grew up under the Nike “Air Jordan” logo. They worshiped basketball players who not only had incredible basketball acumen, but also the grace and courtesy of gentlemen. The players of that generation believed in playing college basketball and respecting their community. Marcus Thompson, a former basketball great still donates money and holds a charity for his high school annually (Katz, 2005). Michael Jordan also holds a personal charity foundation in both Chicago and North Carolina. These players represent a generation of athletes who defined black masculinity as strength through community. They drew strength from “participation in uplifting [their] community and recapturing [their] community’s place in the national arena” (Schultz 1996). Basketball, although an avenue of empowerment, did not serve as an end in and of itself. The concept of group integration and communal empowerment were prominent themes that young athletes were bombarded with, and in a sense this team spirit became part of the work ethic and basketball repertoire for that generation. Black athletes, even those that grew up in the projects saw themselves playing for prestigious college programs such as Georgetown, Duke and UNC. Players such as Allen Iverson, an extremely underprivileged youth growing up in the projects of Staten Island, played for mighty Georgetown University before entering the NBA draft (Ford 2004). Black masculinity followed a theory of “contact and association,” which called for black athletes to appreciate their achievements through the context of what it does to empower the African-American community as a whole (Mohammed 5). Athletes of the nineties were, in a sense, black community leaders and spokespeople rather than exceptions to the ghetto lifestyle. The players of the nineties served as ideal role models because they’re maturity and elegance allowed the game to become popular both nationally and internationally. These players validated the contact hypothesis, a theory which suggests that, “exposure to members of different racial groups, coupled with a common goal or theme, serves to mitigate racial hostility and [eliminate] discrimination and prejudice” (Mohammed 5). The model of behavior set forth in the 90s helped bring the game of basketball global attention. The exceptional play of Michael Jordan and many other black superstars broke through the racial barriers in mainstream America and the world as a whole. They set a standard of excellence that transcended the prejudices of race and ethnicity and popularized the sport. Without a doubt, the behavior of the basketball stars in the nineties heightened the reputation of the African-American community, and brought basketball into mainstream prominence. They proved their black masculinity through both leadership and statesmanship, and paved the road for the players of today’s NBA.
Despite the exceptional standards that the players of the nineties set, the basketball culture in the new millennium seems to differ drastically. The Kobe generation of athletes desire individual achievement and personal glory rather than communal empowerment. These players hunger for basketball to validate their identity and crown their greatness. Dr. Mohammed of the University of Irvine argues that this modern generation of players ignores the contact hypothesis (Mohammed 13) because they perceive their black masculinity as innately tied to racial exclusion. These players want to revert to a more stereotypical definition of black masculinity, represented by street basketball and street jargon. The new black masculinity was similar in form to its predecessor in that it demands a close knit circle of black athletes, but instead of acting as community spokespeople, these athletes see their black heritage as an exclusive club. One white player in a nearby Santa Monica Y noticed that, “There were too many [black] kids up here playing and the game was getting too street” (Mohammed 86). This testimonial validates growing concerns that this new brand of “black basketball” alienates basketball enthusiasts in the mainstream and instead serves a purely black counterculture. The new black culture of basketball attempts to isolate the African-American game as unique and in doing so defines black masculinity as strength in solidarity and racial exclusion (Mohammed 85). Black players, in what they perceive as a predominately white owned and white watched sport, “play for themselves” (Mohammed 87). This generation sees basketball not as a means to achieve recognition for their community, but for themselves.
Basketball becomes a validation of their worth as black men. Intricately connected to the hip hop culture, athletes such as Sebastian Telfair, Josh Smith, and Gerald Greene, lose sight of the allure of education and team success that is associated with college basketball and instead want to immediately pursue a career in the NBA. The physical and aggressive game that modern athletes play, contrasts with the stylistic, graceful and sometimes gravity defying game that Michael and his peers exposed the league to. Dr. Mohammed cautions that the growing trend towards street basketball will create a racial chasm that “could destroy the racial and ethnic bonds that previous generations have worked hard to develop” (Mohammed 120). “Black Street ball” excludes other races in both its style and on court play, and reaffirms certain racial stereotypes such as “black players are more athletic” and “black players are showoffs.” This kind of labeling creates an inferiority complex for both the white majority and black minority. The white majority views this basketball counterculture as evidence that basketball is a primarily black sport, reintroducing many of the racial barriers that the players of the nineties tried so hard to break. For African-Americans, basketball becomes the means to prove their black masculinity to their fellow athletes and reinforces their belief that black players cannot break into the mainstream without “selling out” to the established culture (Mohammed 39). Kobe Bryant in a very real sense became the hero of black basketball youth because he represents what can be achieved for a black athlete on an individual level as long as they have the “me against the world” mentality. Black masculinity transforms from a process of communal recognition for an athlete’s contributions to his community, into a much more self-centered measurement of wealth and ability based on individual achievements.
The Kobe generation certainly has many followers, but to ignore the many upstanding citizens and role models who follow in the footsteps of their 90s heroes is unfair. For each player that plays the Kobe Bryant style of “me first basketball,” other equally talented players use more mature role models that harkens back to a previous decade of values and goals. These athletes, such as Shaquille O’Neal, still see themselves as ambassadors of basketball, and their community. They serve as testimonial to the maturity of modern players through both on court play and off court demeanor. Shaq not only gives back to his community through charities, Christmas Santa parties (Walton December 2004) and personal appearances, he is also actively concerned about the reputation of the game and its players. Shaq exudes confidence, and even though he lacks “street cred” his black masculinity is an unquestionable part of his identity. Shaq as well as many other players who never became entangled in the allure of street basketball reveal that the Kobe generation could very well be a phase. They still uphold the definition of masculinity as strength through community, rather than individual achievement.
The conflict between the “old guard” and Kobe generation represents hope that basketball can still remain in its prominent position in mainstream society. More than anything else, it brings to light that selfish basketball is not necessarily winning basketball and the definition of masculinity that Kobe heralds cannot ultimately succeed. The message that Shaq sends is that hip hop basketball is nothing more than a trend; only through maturity and team oriented basketball can elite players hope to succeed on the world’s biggest stage.
The conflicting definition of black masculinity among African-American athletes can only be resolved by an examination of their impact on the next generation of players. The redefinition of black masculinity in the Kobe generation impacts the infrastructure of African-American society from the bottom up. One Washington Post article reports that Freedom High School, a project high school, built a state of the art gymnasium (Toussaint, 2004) when it can barely afford computers and updated textbooks for its students. Similar state of the art gyms are being erected around the country, especially in urban centers where many of today’s top young black athletes are produced. In a time of massive education reform and nation wide spending cuts, these new facilities seem a stark contrast to the old and crusty classrooms they stand next to. The message sent to African-American youth from this tender age is that basketball, rather than education, represents their best chance to escape the poverty of the ghetto (Gaston 2005). The funding from these schools comes in no small part from the generous donations of the NBA players that come from these underprivileged areas. Their donation to their alma mater’s athletics department reinforces the implicit message that sports should take precedence over academics (Gaston 2005). For these already established NBA players, basketball became the mechanism for their success, and because they never received the proper education to understand the importance of developing academically sound youth, they now collectively shun it to a secondary position. From this young and impressionable age, black players are bombarded with messages from their peers and icons that they must succeed at basketball in order to truly prove their masculinity and attain recognition (Gaston 2005). This exact mentality is what forges the Kobe generation’s definition of black masculinity through individual gain. These players do not play basketball because they love to play the game; they see it as a viable career path. David Thompson argues that the league itself must take actions to stop these talented youth from coming into the league, he argues that, “basketball is a craft much like anything else, and a player, especially a young one must be given the opportunity to go to college and perfect their craft”(Ford, 2005). The ill effects of not receiving college training have become evident as young stars are now coming into their own. The prominent case of Kobe Bryant and his rape trials highlight the emotional underdevelopment that occurs when a player enters the league too early. These players don’t understand the concept of team play and never had the tutelage of a great college coach. When they come into the NBA they are vulnerable and isolated, rather than coming from a prestigious school where a player can “build a friendship network with alumni and peers” (Halberstam 58), these players have no mentor or friend to help them adjust to their new environment. A seemingly more important point is that young players who enter directly into the league lack the ability to handle the media effectively. As Kobe Bryant proved with his trial and oftentimes botched attempts at personal interviews, college provides an excellent litmus test for players to handle the pressures of the media (Halberstam, 103). In the final analysis, the disturbing trend of young basketball players that become fixated with the wealth of playing professional basketball has weakened the African-American community. Players of the Kobe generation lack a firm grasp of why they play basketball, but instead only want all the secondary things such as wealth and respect that comes with being a professional player. The league and its role model players must redouble their efforts to change the false propaganda that African-American youth are exposed to.
The face of the NBA and American basketball has changed since the era of Michael Jordan. The Lakers championship has brought about a reexamination of black masculinity and a new brand of “me first” basketball.
Yet even in the face of these new hurdles in modern basketball, the sport has become a colossal success story. Players from all over the world want to compete in the NBA to show that basketball is not African-American exclusive, nor even American exclusive. Their success has revealed that despite the struggles black athletes face in finding an identity and style that fits their persona, the quality of basketball itself will continue to rise steadily. The bridges that players in the nineties built with their exceptional on and off court behavior has already become part of the infrastructure of the game. Basketball has broken into the mainstream, and the slew of international interest confirms the game’s allure to young athletes of any race or creed. The conflict of identity within the African-American community is not easily resolved. Complications such as poverty and racial exclusion play prominent roles in forging the Kobe generation of athletes. Even in the face of these troubling issues, the many mature black basketball players today lead through their example that ultimately victories are forged by teamwork and trust in others. The fact that individual basketball leads to losing basketball is the stigma that will expose the Kobe generation of athletes as frauds.
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