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Hip-Hop Fridays: Can America's Basketball-Loving Hip-Hop Culture Learn To Love Tim Duncan? by Bruce Selcraig

With the world’s greatest hoop talent now on display in America’s best-of-seven NBA Finals, with over 2 billion people watching in 205 countries, it’s time we ask: why won’t America’s basketball-loving hip-hop generation wear the jersey of one of the NBA’s greatest living African-American superstars?

If a young player comes into my gym wearing his purple-and-yellow Kobe Bryant top, I can safely assume he is not bothered by the Los Angeles Lakers star’s near-escape from a rape conviction, his him-or-me ultimatum that former teammate Shaquille O’Neal be traded or his selfish obsession with scoring, which often leaves his gifted teammates standing around as though waiting for a bus. But, see, Kobe soars and scores. Kobe swaggers. If ego were intelligence he’d be Stephen Hawking. His Laker jersey, that symbol of one’s idolatry, outsells any other player’s in the country.

Conversely, let me introduce you to Tim Duncan. Duncan is the seven-foot, 260-pound power forward of the San Antonio Spurs who, at 31, will likely win his fourth NBA championship.

For nine straight grueling 82-game seasons, Duncan has averaged a jaw-dropping 24 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.4 blocks, and been named to the NBA’s All-Star and All-Defense teams more often than the tide comes in. Intelligent, humble, loved by coaches and teammates, this embodiment of consistency and selflessness is a lock for the NBA Hall of Fame and is arguably the greatest power forward in history.

So why won’t America’s style-over-substance youth be caught dead wearing Duncan’s jersey? White, black, Hispanic, Asian, it’s hard to find an American teenager outside San Antonio who will wear the Duncan black-and-silver. No wonder. He’s not covered in tattoos and gold, has a psychology degree instead of a rap label, has never been arrested, and has a healthy disdain for most of the barking airheads who cover him on TV. What a loser!

At my son’s majority black high school, to wear a Duncan top in the hallways is like wearing a T-shirt saying: I like my parents. I do my homework. Beat me up.

Clearly race and the perception of urban “street-cred” shapes this sad hip-hop phenomenon. Both Duncan and Bryant are African-Americans. Both are worldly, literate, funny and very attuned to the subtleties of racial identity in America. Neither were raised in stereotypical poverty: Duncan is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, son of a midwife and a mason, while Bryant is the son of an NBA/European player and speaks fluent Italian. Both know how to choose a fine wine.

But here’s all you need to know: Duncan plays a deeply fundamental game of basketball, almost completely devoid of attitude and flash, so he is scorned by America’s homeboys.

“He plays white,” one of my black players says, cutting through the niceties.

True, if that means Duncan rarely throws down the ferocious dunks that now define NBA stars. More often he’s bedeviling opponents with a repertoire of bank shots, pump fakes designed to draw fouls, and frequent close-range tip-ins where he never brings the ball lower than his head, which coaches have been preaching since the Jurassic period.

When he blocks a shot, rather than make a “statement” by swatting it 30 rows into the stands (and giving it right back to the offense), Duncan tries to tip the ball to himself or a teammate. How boring. He plays relentlessly, but so efficiently, without wasted motion or emotion, that the untrained eye might think he’s trying not to break a sweat.

If that’s playing white, I fear a lot of folks will be signing up for the Michael Jackson operation. But don’t shed a tear for Duncan. He may be the only NBA star who doesn’t know where his jersey ranks in the pantheon of hipness. That’s very cool, but it’s tragic that America’s hip-hop culture can’t embrace a wondrous athlete who’s risen to the top of his profession and is proudly unafraid to be himself.

Editor's Note: Bruce Selcraig writes for Smithsonian, The New York Times and Golf Connoisseur. This article appeared in The Valley Advocate (

Friday, June 15, 2007

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