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What the Stephen Jackson-Steve Francis scuffle says about the NBA's changing hip hop image

The nightclub incident between former Stephen Jackson and Steve Francis may say something about hip hop culture, but their absence from the game says more about how today's NBA is cultivating its image.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, ProjectSpurs shared (NSFW) video footage of budding rapper and two-time former Spur Stephen Jackson choking former Rocket and three-time All Star Steve Francis in a Houston nightclub.

The clip, from a webisode of Queens of the Club which went online about a month ago, shows an altercation between the two men following a show by Jackson, who performs as Stak 5. We don't see what led up to the incident, but we do see Jackson's hand around Francis' throat, and then a bewildered Francis being put in cuffs.

The choking incident is a bit of an afterthought in the over fifty minute webisode, which includes appearances by big names in the Houston hip hop scene, liquor bottles spitting fire, and a bagful of money being dumped on stage--in short, just another night for me now that I'm living back home with my parents.

No action from the league's front office is expected in regard to Francis and Jackson because, well -- neither man is still playing in the league, and that's no minor point.

Francis, 36, has been out of the NBA for years, but saw his career cut short due to attitude and injury issues. Jackson, Pounders will recall, was waived by the Spurs just before last season's playoffs after he complained about his role on the team. What the two have in common then, aside from both being at a hip hop club, is that their teams could no longer tolerate their attitudes, and the poor decisions that came along with them.

Francis and Jackson's absence is symbolic for the NBA's efforts to preserve its image, which is still often lumped together with hip hop culture and everything that's associated with it.

Hip Hop Culture and 90s NBA

Of all major American sports, the perception of the NBA's players is both the most fundamental to its revenue and the most difficult for it to manage. There are no helmets to hide behind, no jersey sleeves to obscure tattoos, and a player's individuality can immediately be reflected in the style of his game.

There was a time when this individuality was embraced--celebrated even. For those who grew up with the NBA of the 90s, this commercial may have been the swan song of what some see as the league's halcyon era:

Here was the game we "loved"--one of colorful reactions, boastful jawing, and unbridled emotion.

At around this time, the NBA and hip hop were on a collision course, with both sides growing in popularity throughout the mid-90s. One of the first points of impact was, oddly enough, Tune Land. On the movie Space Jam's eclectic soundtrack, the most surprising track was undoubtedly the Monstar's Theme, played by B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes.

The unofficial partnership between hip hop and basketball was going to happen anyway, but this particular pairing showed the comfort level that there was between the two. Here's what Michael Wilbon wrote about the connection:

League and club executives decided to marry the NBA to hip-hop, and clearly didn't know what they were getting into. As my friend Brian Burwell wrote in Tuesday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, NBA marketing people "thought they were getting Will Smith and LL Cool J. But now they've discovered the dark side of hip-hop has also infiltrated their game, with its 'bling-bling' ostentation, its unrepentant I-gotta-get-paid ruthlessness, its unregulated culture of posses, and the constant underlying threat of violence . . . "

It's not that the NBA didn't have controversy before this, but the image the NBA garnered became a catch-all -- the kind that Wilbon describes -- that's still around today.

Hip Hop Culture and Allen Iverson's NBA

The same year that Space Jam came out was the famed '96 draft, which saw the league welcome an entirely new kind of basketballer. All of a sudden, the highlights of Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Kobe Bryant lit up the league, and there were crossovers and tattoos everywhere.

White fans of the game began to feel a disconnect with the players. What was once seemingly just a racial difference became something more socioeconomic, compounded by the exit of Michael Jordan and other greats of a then-bygone era.

Iverson became the scapegoat for a league that felt the need to deal with its fan-alienating image. AI was undeniably entertaining, hard-working (at least, during the game) and talented, but his attitude was not what the league wanted from its players. The NBA suddenly didn't appreciate swagger or showmanship like it used to, and grew intolerant of any kind of showboating. People had questions about what was going wrong with their basketball, and for many, players like Allen Iverson were the answer.

This was an awkward stage for the league on the whole, as it looked to remove an overtly negative tone from the game, leading to the occasional awkward moment like this.

Yet, 2004 marked the point when the NBA really started to actively address its image, following the notorious Malice at the Palace (of which Jackson was a part of, as well). The altercation saw black players, as if they were members of the Monstars, spill into the stands to fight white fans -- at least, that's how some members of the media put it. This article outlines the opinions expressed by radio personality and right-wing OG Rush Limbaugh, who spat out words about NBA players like "thugs", and "gangs" in the same brazen breath:

This is the hip-hop culture on parade. This is gang behavior on parade minus the guns. That's the culture that the NBA has become. So if anybody will be honest with you about it in the NBA, and a very few will have the courage to, because saying what I just said is going to be tagged as racist, but I, my friends, am fearless when it comes to this because the truth will out, and that's what's happening here, and part and parcel of this gang culture, this hip-hop culture, is: "I'm not going to tolerate being dissed. I'm not going to be disrespected," and "disrespected" is now so broad that it includes somebody looking at you the wrong way.

Limbaugh's comments were obviously over the top and intentionally incendiary, but the league knew there was a huge image problem that it needed to address immediately.

One way the league addressed its image was by imposing a dress code for players before games. Was the problem that guys were showing up in a wrinkly polo shirt and cargo shorts? No. It was the gold chains, Timberland boots, do-rags and baggy jeans. The dress code drew criticism from many players, even Timmeh -- but it made no difference: The street clothes that players like Iverson were wearing soon became a thing of the past and league execs on the whole were happy (though, could they have possibly foreseen this?).

Then came the Gilbert Arenas locker room incident a few years later. Just like the Pistons-Pacers brawl, there was a frightening (especially to the head office) clash of two worlds. And once again, like after the Malice, we saw the same racist words flutter around the media again.

The league felt compelled to react harshly to the Arenas incident--even though seemingly more dangerous confrontations involving guns had occurred in the past. Henry Abbott pointed out the inconsistency in the NBA's punishment of Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, citing Scottie Pippen's ownership of guns, and (sigh, again) Stephen Jackson pulling off a desk pop ... in a nightclub.

Hip Hop Culture and Lebron James' NBA

Today, hip hop is still a force in the NBA, likely more than ever before. Nelly's a partial owner of the Bobcats; Jay-Z's a sports agent; players and artists hang out both on and off the court; and sports fashion and music continue to be interconnected. This article heralded the blissful marriage between the two sides through a Kanye song.

LeBron James entered the league through a chalk-cloud of unimaginable hype, and lived up to it, all while befriending many of music's biggest figures.

Furthermore, watch any player's Youtube highlights and they will almost certainly be mixed with a hip hop song. Even more interesting is that any other type of music almost seems out of place.

Most important of all may be the influence of the biggest player in the game today.

Lebron James is hip hop culture. He's larger than life, with a personality, showmanship and social media presence that echo the ostentations of the music industry. He's risen from humble beginnings, entered the league through a chalk-cloud of unimaginable hype, and lived up to it, all while befriending many of music's biggest figures. He's a hip hop icon without dropping a beat.

Beyond how Lebron is impacting the culture of the league is his influence on its future. He's in the ear of many NBA prospects, on the sideline of major college games, and on the covers of their video games (he even handpicked the soundtrack for NBA 2K14).

But Lebron is not just hip hop culture, so much as he is the NBA's idea of hip hop -- the mainstream's anti-AI.

While both men were number one picks, Iverson forever had the tag of an All Eyez on Me ballhog, whereas Lebron came in as a pass-first playmaker. While Iverson had little patience for the media, Lebron James has embraced it. He tweets, he Instagrams, he Vines (if that's the word) and, overall, interacts with fans like nobody else. And with Lebron cultivating next year's crop of stars, it seems to be something that will impact the league for years to come.

The NBA of today is the result of no small struggle by the league over the past 15 years to come to terms with its changing identity and, like a good MC, it continues to sample from hip hop culture to benefit its own tune. Bad judgment calls by some players will present the occasional record scratch, but it's nothing we should expect to change as long as players aren't bringing da ruckus and owners are getting paid in full.

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How does the league's image today compare to what it was 10 years ago? Do you expect its image to change by itself, or will the NBA wait to be tweeted what to do? Will you love this game no matter what?

[UPDATE: A previous version of this story included an erroneous description of Danny Green's activities after the Spurs' Game 7 loss to the Miami Heat. Both LeBron James and Green came out to say that Green did not celebrate with the Heat.]

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