If there was ever a direct correlation between a sport and a genre of music, basketball and hip hop would be that correlation. The two entities always seem to have some overlap in modern popular culture where rappers want to be basketball players and basketball players want to be rappers. We have seen this manifest in entertainers playing in celebrity all-star games and basketball players releasing hip hop albums.
A driving force for this is that there are inherent similarities between both mediums. Of all professional sports, basketball is often to be considered the most individualistic and artistic. We often praise the creativity of someone like Kyrie Irving with a basketball in his hands. It is not uncommon to see many commentators suggesting that Kyrie dribbling is an art form. Hip hop similarly, reflects a poetry aesthetic more than other genres of music. There is a relatability between a rapper delivering 16 bars that make you think and a crossover on the perimeter ending in a fantastic dunk.
With these parallels in mind, I think that the legends that we adore on the hardwood are very comparable to legends on the mic. Here are 10 NBA legends and who their direct comparison in the rap game would be.
1- LeBron James → Jay-Z
LeBron James is often brought up in the conversation as the greatest basketball player of all time alongside Michael Jordan. His excellence on the court has never been questioned, with many considering LeBron the most skilled player to ever touch a basketball. LeBron’s greatness does not stop once he leaves the court however. The true greatness of LeBron James is his success as a businessman in addition to being a great basketball player. This is why LeBron’s direct comparison in the rap game is Jay-Z.
Much like LeBron, many people suggest that Jay-Z is the greatest rapper of all time. Jay has had his fair share of great albums that were critically acclaimed such as “The Blueprint” and “Reasonable Doubt”. But the brilliance of Jay-Z is that he was able to master his craft and still be able to take his success to the next level as CEO of Def Jam Recordings, an ownership stake in the Brooklyn Nets, have his clothing line in Rocawear, and being a majority owner of the Tidal music streaming app. People love Jay-Z because he was able to take his rap success and become a millionaire through smart business ventures. It is deeper than music.
The same applies to LeBron. He is universally lauded as a great player but we also look at him as a successful businessperson with his sports agency Klutch Sports, his foray into movies, the building of schools in his hometown of Akron, OH, and many other ventures. The greatness of LeBron goes beyond the court much as Jay-Z’s greatness goes far beyond the microphone. Both are icons and moguls in American culture and spoken of in the same vein.
2- Bill Russell → Rakim
When there are discussions of the greatest basketball players of all time, a name that is often disregarded is Bill Russell. The greatest winner in NBA history with 11 championships, Russell’s greatness is often overlooked due to the era that he played in. Russell dominated during the ’50s and ’60s in the infancy of the league, which has led to discussions over the quality of the competition that he faced in that era. Where we praise Michael Jordan for winning 6 championships, we often forget that Russell won 11 titles in his 13-year run in Boston. As the game evolved, we forgot about his greatness, and as such his legacy as an individual player has eroded despite him being a pioneer of the modern game. A rapper that has experienced a similar fate in hip hop has been Rakim.
Without Rakim, the style of rappers that we have idolized may have never existed. Rakim pioneered the gritty east coast style used by artists such as Nas, Notorious BIG, and Jay-Z in the ’90s. Yet when we discuss the greatest emcees we often forget about Rakim. Many are quick to mention 2Pac or the other New York rappers that Rakim inspired, yet Rakim is left out of this discussion despite releasing multiple classic albums. Projects such as “Paid in Full” and “Follow The Leader” were pinnacles of hip hop excellence that inspired the classics that we as hip hop fans have enjoyed in the following years.
In short, Bill Russell and Rakim may be victims of being ahead of their time. Russell was an athletic exhibition and perhaps the best champion the league has ever seen in a league in its infancy. Rakim on the hip hop side brought a poetic streetwise style to a genre also in its infancy that was littered with dancing entertainers trying to break through to the mainstream. Both men were innovators that do not get their just due in the way that they impacted their crafts.
3- Wilt Chamberlain → Big Daddy Kane
Bill Russell won 11 championships in his 13-year career, the man that was often on the losing end of that was Wilt Chamberlain. Much like Russell, Chamberlain was an anomaly for his era. Often called a freak of nature, he is often mythologized by basketball fans and purists. The sheer numbers that he averaged throughout his career (30 points per game and 22 rebounds per game) defies logic. His Achilles heel as a player was that he just happened to be in the league when the Celtics dominated the very young NBA. Wilt is often recognized as a great individual but his arguments of greatness falter when compared to the obscene amount of winning that Bill Russell did. An overshadowed great figure not too much unlike Big Daddy Kane.
There is a phrase in hip hop to describe a rapper that lacks mainstream appeal but is respected by his peers. This phrase is “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper”. No one old school rapper embodies this more than Big Daddy Kane. Kane is often considered one of the most skilled rappers of all time. Yet when asking an average hip hop fan to name a top 10 of great rappers, he will seldom come up in conversation. Nas, on his song “Carry On Tradition”, exhibits this underappreciation of Kane’s greatness by saying:
“I got an exam, let’s see if y’all pass it
Let’s see who can quote a Daddy Kane line the fastest”
Kane was an influencer in so many ways in hip hop. From his fast rapping style to trendsetting fashion statements, Kane was an innovator. Wilt Chamberlain was this for the NBA as an uber-athletic big man that eventually became a societal icon. Yet both of these eccentric legends have been overshadowed by a contemporary that was more regarded. So much so, that as a fan of both art forms you wish that they had been born in different eras.
4- Jerry West → Masta Ace
Some greats are known for one bit of their lives. This applies to this next pairing: Jerry West and Masta Ace. Jerry West, while an accomplished player and executive in league history, is best known for being “The Logo” or the player that the NBA’s logo is based on. Masta Ace, while being one of the pioneers of modern hip hop rhyme styles is best known as being featured on the classic hip hop song “The Symphony”. Both men have a reputation for being influential and skilled yet are often overlooked in the sea of greatness that they are associated with.
Jerry West before his greatness as a league executive was a great shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet when experts compile a list of great shooting guards he falls down the list as another victim of time. Much like Bill Russell, many have forgotten the great jump shot mastery that West possessed. In a time before the three-point shot, West averaged 27 points per game mostly off of jump shots. His scoring totals would have been even higher had he played with a three-point line. This is something that many people forget about when analyzing his numbers versus someone like James Harden.
Masta Ace might be one of the greatest storytelling emcees of all time. A noted influencer of Eminem’s storytelling style, Ace pioneered the style of actually telling a story on a record as opposed to the bombast that was popular in the late ’80s. As time has gone on, storytelling has become a fixture in hip hop, yet we as fans often forget that Ace was one of the originators of this that inspired great storytellers like Nas and Eminem. While Ace’s catalog isn’t as deep as others his influence, like Jerry West’s, cannot be denied. Time has not been kind to these two pioneers as they have been forgotten as the quiet innovators that they are.
5- Kobe Bryant → 2Pac
The perfection of the craft and hard work pays off are two cliches often associated with greatness. The stories of athletes and business people who got the success that they achieved through hard work and dedication are a dime a dozen. But in the case of Kobe Bryant and 2Pac this cliche is reality. The similarities between these two icons are fascinating. Both were born on the east coast but are associated as children of the west coast, both had influential parents, both had legal troubles that could have potentially tarnished their legacies, and both lives were ended far too soon.
Kobe Bryant will most likely go down as the hardest working superstar that the world has ever seen. He is the closest approximation to Michael Jordan that the modern NBA has ever seen. His greatness on the court is magnified by his determination to be the best in his preparation. Ther term Mamba Mentality is a pop culture fixture at this point to describe the desire to exceed expectations regardless of the circumstance. Kobe’s ultimate legacy is one of achieved greatness and the willingness to put in the work to maintain it and always improve. In the wake of his untimely death, more and more stories have come out of people’s various moments with Kobe and the impact that he had on so many people on the basketball court and off of it.
2Pac has had a similar impact on hip hop. During the last year of his life, 2Pac is said to have recorded 150 songs. A level of work ethic and tireless pursuit that is not often seen in hip hop or music in general. This is why there have been so many posthumous projects from 2Pac, there was just so much material. 2Pac was a poet in the era gangster rap, a savant that dabbled in cinema and could have been a novelist. In the years since his death, his music is still incredibly relevant and timeless with even the youngest generation aware of his greatness. 2Pac defined west coast hip hop for the next generation of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Nipsey Hussle.
The similarities in the legacy of both of these men are quite striking. Both will forever be immortalized in Los Angeles and the world will always mourn the fact that they were taken from us far too when they had so much more to give.
6- Michael Jordan → Nas
When you discuss greatness in your craft, and solely in your craft, the name Michael Jordan often comes up. Jordan was an icon of basketball, an international phenomenon that in his prime was not comparable to any of his peers. The excellence that Michael Jordan achieved between 1991–1998 is the stuff of legend. The only thing is that it happened. Jordan is revered by many as the greatest basketball player to ever live. Regarded as perhaps the greatest scorer that the game has ever seen. People wanted to be like Michael Jordan, to emulate their game after him. Great players like LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Kobe Bryant all fashioned their game after Jordan. His greatness always unquestioned, even in his later years in Washington because of the memory of his greatness in Chicago never fades.
Some may think it is an interesting choice to pair him with Nas. After all, Nas is not the consensus greatest rapper of all time in the way that Jordan is in basketball. But consider it from this perspective. Most people acknowledge that Illmatic, Nas’ first album, is the greatest hip hop album of all time. Illmatic also happened to change the way that albums were constructed, much how Jordan changed the way that his position was played.
Before Illmatic all hip hop albums had one producer and one rapper. Nas changed that using beats from various producers to still put out a cohesive sound. As a result of that, the emcee and one producer model have largely gone extinct and rappers use beats from a multitude of producers for their albums. When Michael Jordan entered the NBA, the conventional wisdom was that you needed an elite big man (like Kareem Abdul Jabbar or Hakeem Olajuwon) to win titles, that a guard as your best player was not going to work. Jordan proved this wrong as during all six of his title runs never had a dominant center. Both changed the way that their industries viewed a successful formula, and both have thrived off of it.
Another interesting parallel between the two is that Jordan is often compared to LeBron James and Nas is often compared to Jay-Z. Much how Jay-Z and LeBron are heralded for their greatness off the court/mic and entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Nas and Jordan are heralded for their accolades on the court/mic. They are both private individuals by comparison and the weight of their legacies is shown through their music. And while both have had personal life struggles, their legacies have remained intact. Jordan is remembered as an elite scorer and Nas is remembered as a great lyricist, as they should be.
7- Kevin Durant → Eminem
There is something about a villain that is so intriguing. Especially when the villain was once a hero that we all marveled over. This is the case for both Kevin Durant and Eminem. Both are trailblazers in their own right. Kevin Durant’s skill set should not make any sense. He is tall but can shoot the ball well from any range, is skinny but is a surprisingly good shot blocker and inside scorer. He is nearly 7 feet tall but can handle the ball like a point guard. Eminem similarly is a confusing case study. He is from a region that historically has never produced an elite rapper. Before Eminem, most accomplished rappers came from New York or Los Angeles. His rise gave birth to a midwest renaissance of hip hop. He is also a white rapper with serious rapping skills, where previous acts such as Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark were seen as comedic sideshows. He saved the career of one of the most accomplished producers of all time in Dr. Dre, not the other way around. The success of both of these men sometimes defies reason.
Yet they are also both villains. Eminem made an impact by insulting pop stars and pop culture icons. In the late ’90s, this was incredibly controversial. A rapper, let alone a white rapper from Detroit should not be doing these sorts of things. He was adored by his fans but maligned heavily by his critics. And anyone critical of him was likely to be demolished on a diss song. Kevin Durant was beloved as an offensive savant before he left Oklahoma City and signed in Golden State, a move that many considered weak and not befitting a superstar. The masses hated him for this choice but could not escape his excellence, much how Eminem’s excellence couldn’t be avoided even if you couldn’t stand him.
Both Eminem and Durant have also launched side ventures that while successful have not gotten much notice. Eminem has turned into an excellent eye for up and coming hip hop talent through Shady Records while Durant has found success in digital content production with his Boardroom series. Despite these low-key successes, these two are two figures that people love to hate. Any new Eminem album is bound to have a contingent of people that hate it on-premise alone and many basketball fans refuse to support Kevin Durant regardless of his skill. In a way, both men have accepted the role of a great villain and have thrived on it.
8- Larry Bird → Notorious BIG
It is often fun to wonder what could have been when unforeseen circumstances come in the way of someone’s greatness. It is even more fascinating when despite being deprived of long term greatness we still remember an asset that they possessed that is still unrivaled today. Injury and death deprived us as a viewing public of the extended greatness of Larry Bird and the Notorious BIG. There was a genius to both of these iconic figures that have yet to be replicated in later generations. Larry Bird had the purest jump shot that anyone had ever seen and the Notorious BIG had a rap flow that is still emulated to this day.
The jump shot in basketball and flow in hip hop are two very relatable things. When they are executed properly there is a beauty and smoothness to it. The excellence of these from both Bird and BIG immediately elevated them into legendary status. So much so that a lot of other areas where they excelled are often underappreciated. For instance, Bird was a gifted passer and BIG was a very clever lyricist. Another similarity that both have in common is a rivalry with a contemporary that helped elevate their field. Bird’s rivalry with Magic Johnson’s Lakers helped to ignite the golden age of the NBA while BIG’s rivalry with 2Pac helped to take hip hop from the fringe into the mainstream. Both of these men were pioneers that had a lasting impact on their crafts through mastery and iconic status.
9- James Harden → Lil Wayne
When you are a fan of a genre of something for a very long time it becomes very easy to dismiss new entries into the genre. Such is the case for the greatness of Lil Wayne and James Harden. Harden might be one of the most prolific scorers that the game has ever seen by the time he retires. He is 30 years old currently and 45th on the all-time scoring list. At the current pace that he is on and with a style of play that is more based on analytics and efficiency than athleticism, there is a very likely scenario that he approaches the top 3 in scoring all time. Many people dismiss James Harden because of the way that he scores his points with the three-point shot and an almost absurd amount of free throws. But the fact remains that he is one of the most efficient scorers that the game has ever seen.
Lil Wayne has received accolades during his career that may surprise some people. In 2012, he passed Elvis Pressley for most entries on the Billboard Top 100. Wayne has also over 120 million records which is no small feat. Yet when many hip hop historians look at his career, they do not look at him in the same way that they look at Jay-Z or 2Pac. Much like James Harden, Wayne has his era held against him. That he is merely a mediocre performer in a sea of ineptitude. That the talent from the previous era was simply greater and the thriving that we witness from Harden and Wayne is a result of that.
The reality is that they are both high volume producers at incredible efficiency rates in a climate that rewards such a thing. The modern basketball game places a high value on efficiency and analytics with the three-point shot and getting to the free-throw line. Harden excels at this and is the perfect player for this era. In Wayne’s case, he entered the prime of his career as the way that we listened to started to change in the internet age. We have increasingly become a content consuming population that demands new material constantly. Lil Wayne has navigated this new expectation flawlessly and should be commended for it. Wayne and Harden are magnificent in their own right, but time and time again we critique them on the expectations of the past when they are great in the present.
10- Allen Iverson → Fabolous
There is not much that gets crowds at a basketball game more excited than a crossover that breaks down the defender. Equally, there is nothing like listening to a rapper deliver a devastating punch line at the end of a bar. There was perhaps no better of a crossover artist than Allen Iverson and no better punchline deliverer than Fabolous. The appeal of both actions is similar, eliciting the same “ooooh” and “damn” reactions of approval.
In addition to their ability to equally mesmerize viewers and listeners alike, both Fabolous and Allen Iverson were fashion trendsetters in their respective fields. Many credit Allen Iverson with the “thug culture” of hip hop influenced fashion while he was in the league. Baggy shirts, sagging jeans, sneakers, and jewelry. Iverson started this, and soon after the whole league followed suit. So much so that then-commissioner David Stern instituted a league-wide dress code to prevent it from happening. Iverson also made the cornrows hairstyle more fashionable in the NBA and was one of the first players to don a shooting sleeve during games.
Fabolous was a trendsetter in his own right. During the early 2000s at the peak of his popularity, Fabolous popularized the wearing of throwback jerseys. He even had a song about it, coincidentally called “Throwback”. This trend would be present all over hip hop and the NBA. In the years that followed Fabolous has been a fashion fixture in hip hop culture often influencing trends of other artists.
Sadly, the decline of both of these highly skilled men also shows similarities. Both did not adapt to changes in the climate of their industries. As Allen Iverson aged, he defiantly refused to come off the bench and when he did he could not integrate properly into a style of play that had passed him by. Fabolous has tried to adjust to the wave of southern hip hop dominance with very poor results, releasing mediocre albums trying to shift his sound from the punchline specialties that were “Ghetto Fabolous” and “Street Dreams”. Both defined the early 2000’s era, and we should all choose to remember those glory years as opposed to the uninspiring recent history.
The Culture Moves On
Hip hop and basketball will forever be linked. There is a culture of basketball that has hip hop engrained and a culture of hip hop that has basketball engrained. The poetry on the microphone is mirrored by the poetry on the court, as it should be. Rappers will continue to mention players in their songs and player will try to be rappers. A relationship and culture that will never die.