Kawhi Leonard & The Raptors Celebrate 2019. Photo: Bill King
Kawhi Leonard & The Raptors Celebrate 2019. Photo: Bill King

It’s Winning Time!

It’s that time of the year, that championship season. It’s all about the showdowns in hockey and basketball. Who will be #1? But, what about the tunes? Those soundtracks underscoring our competitive spirit.

When it comes to hockey and music, it’s that archive of tracks that express the affection we have for a game we memorialize. The Tragically Hip (Fireworks, Fifty-Mission Cap), The Zambonis (I Wanna Drive the Zamboni), The Pursuit of Happiness (Gretzky Rocks), Rheostatics (The Ballad of Wendel Clark), and that exalted piece of history, Stompin’ Tom Connors' The Hockey Song.

With football, it’s country music—Kenny Chesney (The Boys of Fall,) Hank Williams Jr. (Are You Ready for Some Football), baseball—Bruce Springsteen (Glory Days), John Fogerty (Centerfield), Kenny Rogers (The Greatest), Warren Zevon (Bill Lee), Alabama (Cheap Seats), Corey Smith (The Baseball Song).

What persuaded me to write about that union between sports and music is my own hands-on passions: baseball and basketball. Again, of course, I’d toss biking in the mix, but I can’t recall a cycling anthem other than On a Bicycle Built for Two.

At this moment, the NBA championship has begun, and the Golden State Warriors are back and have an opportunity to secure a fourth trophy in less than a decade. A squad with an astute makeover, including a Toronto GTA player, the #1 draft pick in 2014, Andrew Wiggins, favoured to win.

“I swear sports and music are so synonymous, ‘cause we want to be them, and they want to be us,” Drake says.

I truly get that. Anybody who has picked up a ball, bat, or stick wishes to inhabit the body of a champion, pitch like a legend, bat-like a hero, shoot like the greatest. I spent more hours on a ball diamond as a kid than in front of a piano. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, I would guess a 6-1 ratio piano to ball on playgrounds and in gyms, scrimmaging day, and night. That’s some sports crazy!

Back in 1983, I toured with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. To break the monotony of a wasted day, I acquired a soccer ball, and the guys took to it. We played in the parking lot of the Magnolia Inn in Little Rock, Arkansas. Some days it was intense, competitive, and more fun than the gig. In fact, afterwards, we’d plan with enthusiasm the next game and team make-up.


So, here’s the upshot of this write. The Golden State Warriors have made a sixth Finals in eight seasons, which also brushes against the fifth studio album from Compton, California native Kendrick Lamar. Let me break this down. The Warriors won championships when Lamar released To Pimp a Butterfly, Damn and Black Panther (2015, 2017, 2018) all three charted #1 on Billboard. Just recently, Lamar just dropped Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. See where I’m going with this.

“Music and basketball have always come together hand in hand, whether NBA stars dabbling in music or performers using players as inspiration. It’s the best part of the game. Music plays throughout the game in the arena. During timeouts, singers, dancers and rappers perform; music is entrenched in what makes the game of basketball. Take rapper Big Sean, for instance, who has taken the role of Creative Director of Innovation for the Detroit Pistons to bring and provide creative strategy towards team initiatives, including team apparel and in-game experience.” Morgan McMillan—The Edge

On the courts across the planet, you get this. Rap and hip-hop boom, as the soundtrack to pick-up basketball games. It’s the rhythms, the raw energy, and the attitude enhancer one needs to elevate one’s game.

In the seventies, it was all about funk and jazz. The soundtrack of the Black Experience.

“Jazz has been the musical narrative of my life. My love of jazz stems not only from the music itself but also from its history. The music connects me to my own thoughts and feelings but also connects me to my cultural history. Jazz is the original soundtrack of the black experience in America. It expresses the hardships, frustrations, rage, melancholy, unity and hopefulness. Jazz was the popular voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Its popularity has drawn attention to black writers and artists, giving African Americans more respect as intellects and artists. It changed the white perception of blacks. After World War II, small, intimate jazz bands replaced the big bands. Instead of dancing, people listened to the music. They appreciated the artistry and intellect of the music.

Jazz was also the marching music of the civil rights movement. John Coltrane’s Alabama, in response to the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church, which killed four black girls. Charles Mingus’ Fables of Faubus condemns Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus’ treatment of the Little Rock Nine, nine black students trying to attend a recently desegregated high school. Nina Simone shocked the Carnegie Hall audience in 1964 when she sang Mississippi Goddam. Kareem Abdul Jabbar - Jazztimes 2018

This brings me to the unexpected HBO hit series Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker’s Dynasty, 2.5 million viewers an episode, based on the evolution of the modern-day Los Angeles Lakers, the arrival of college star Magic Johnson, – a dynasty in waiting to produce five NBA Championships with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, and others at the core.

John C. Reilly fittingly plays the flamboyant team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah a promiscuous one-in-a-million talent (Magic Johnson), Jason Clarke – a volatile all-star haunted by his elusive place in sports history (Jerry West), Adrien Brody –  Hall of Fame coach in waiting (Pat Riley), Solomon Hughes – a brooding prodigy, black activist with a love for outside jazz (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Wood Harris – a monster of an ABA Star who falls prey to depression and drugs (Spencer Haywood), Jason Segel – the coach who courted failure (Paul Westhead), Sean Patrick Small – Johnson rival and masterful player (Larry Bird), Tracy Letts, X and O’s tactician who would revolutionize the game (Jack McKinney).

Buss purchases a franchise in decline at a time when basketball was barely on the radar. The occasional match was broadcasted after Christmas on Sunday afternoons. White America saw the game as to black, never at ease watching more than one to two black players on the floor at once. That all changed when college rivals Johnson and Bird brought the remnants of their epic national championship face-off to the two most lauded organizations in sports. East meets West! Game on!

Buss summoned the glitz, the Pom Pom girls in tight shorts, that cocaine rush, fitted the showbiz element to the game much like the man himself. Through ten tantalizing episodes, we watch the Lakers transform from a team and organisation about to implode to the most exciting club of the ‘80s. The real Harlem Globetrotters! No look passes, up-tempo game, Jabbar’s patent ‘skyhook’, Magic grinning from ear to ear and more groupies than ever witnessed at a Rod Stewart concert. That new world of marketing – the forerunner to Michael Jordan’s NIKE world domination. Through it all, we get an ‘80s Kodachrome portrait of a moment frozen in time. Fast-paced, heavy smoking con men, hard-drinking, backstabbing, two-timing individuals playing a child’s game. All for the love of a sport and the newly minted wealth that accompanied those rare few athletes who could sky above the rest and were eminently marketable. The .01%.

That confluence between rap and basketball heads north.

“American rapper J. Cole will be taking his basketball talents to Canada. The CEBL announced recently that the 6'3" guard, born Jermaine Cole, has signed a deal with the Scarborough Shooting Stars to continue his professional basketball career.

Cole, 37, is set to begin his second consecutive pro basketball stint after playing with the Rwanda-based Patriots BBC of the Basketball Africa League last season.

The rapper recorded five points, three assists and five rebounds in three games before leaving the team due to family obligations. He joins a Scarborough, Ont., team that will be playing its inaugural season after being announced as a new CEBL expansion club last summer.

The Shooting Stars are part-owned by Nicholas Carino, one of the co-founders of famed clothing and lifestyle brand OVO (October's Very Own). Among the staff of the Shooting Stars are Jamaal Magloire, a former NBA player and Toronto Raptors basketball development consultant and community ambassador who is the team's vice president and senior adviser, as well as Brady Heslip, a former sharpshooting Canadian national team member, who is the club's general manager.” CBC Sports.

Cole recently made his debut. Maybe not a remarkable beginning, but for the love of the game – a Rapper’s Delight.

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