Buying into the Lifestyle, But at What Cost?
After the fourth game and countless television shows, I realized something might be going on here: NFL Street, NBA Street, Street Hoops, and now NBA Ballers. Turn on the TV and you are bound to see a Sprite commercial or some And-1 production. Where the 1980s found an array of political and cultural productions pathologizing and demonizing America’s inner city communities, recent years have seen a body of projects that embody a love and contempt for ghetto life.
NBA Ballers is not your typical basketball game. Sure, it offers your favorite past and present NBA ballers, minus Michael Jordan and Jerry West. Like its basketball brethren—NBA Live, ESPN Basketball—NBA Ballers provides a diversity of basketball options. Beyond the earth-shattering dunks, hook shots, fade away jumpers, and power rebounds, NBA Ballers opens its players up to the world of street basketball.
As a game of street basketball (as opposed to “textbook ball” which is defined by acceptance of the formal rules of the game), in absence of the street, the essence of NBA Ballers is the encouraged creativity and artistry the game promotes. Eschewing offenses or even 5-on-5 basketball, NBA Ballers allows you to go mano-a-mano; yet the game is less concerned about score than most basketball games. With each game, you seek to accumulate style points or cash. Through playground moves, “acting a fool,” alley oops, throwing the ball off the hizzle (opponents’ head), talking trash, and “shatterin the ego,” players accumulate readily available cash to be used to improve your baller.
With cash in hand, players are able to visit the Inside Stuff screen in which you can use credit points to customize your baller, modify his skills, or acquire a new ride, huge crib, or a sexy woman. After several “azz-whuppings” of Amare Stoudamire and Vince Carter, I decided to take my earned credits to the baller store. There, I purchased a new chain, longer shorts, and a sleeveless shirt to show off my virtual guns. More importantly, I was able to use my credits to build my game with the new ability to pass to a friend, legally goal-tend, and dunk on put-backs. Unfortunately, I had not built enough credits (rep) to purchase a new ride, a phat crib, or, most importantly, a fly “accessory woman.” The ability to buy a crib or new ride reflects the glorification of a “cribs culture,” but the availability of women for purely sexual purposes embodies societal misogyny, the tendency of virtual reality to reduce the presence of women to sexualized functions, and the hegemonic discourse on black athletes and sex.
A related element is the gaming options of NBA Ballers. While you can play traditional 1-on-1 or merely practice your skills, the central features are the TV Tournament and the Rags to Riches modes. The TV Tournament mode allows you to move up the ladder by playing various NBA stars, at which time you unlock various players by beating them. The Rags to Riches mode is, however, central to the game. “This game mode is NBA Ballers’ career mode where you can create a baller, then play games to earn credits and prizes. You’ll then spend those earnings to live the good life with mansions, cars, jewels and even an entourage, but you’ll need to earn it on the court.” In effect, NBA Ballers is a virtual TV show where you try to convert your skills as a baller into riches, thereby proving the realities of meritocracy and the American Dream. As a ghetto, hip-hop, Horatio Alger story, this reality show lets an unknown baller (you) play real ballers and “earn his bling along the way, going from rags to riches. It’s the American dream.” While constructing your own player and improving your on-the-court performance are key elements to its fun and excitement, this mode is ostensibly about the results and benefits of ballin’. The mode reminds you of this fact as you prepare for your fist battle in the backyard of Stephen Marburry’s phat Phoenix estate: “Build your own player to try to fight your way off the streets; try to go from Rucker to the phat cribs of the NBA. Along the way get bling, fashions, ink, crew, rides and your very own crib.” That is, if you want to “come up,” to get paid, to become a baller, you gotta earn it.
The problems (and popularity) of NBA Ballers are obvious. Its erasure of racism (the imagined ghetto is glorious and exciting), its fetishization of an imagined black cultural aesthetic, its glorification of excessive materialism, its celebration/demonization of black athletes as focused solely on bling-bling, and its treatment of women as sexual objects of possible acquisition, are all troubling. The game reduces basketball and blackness to a single element, celebrating the peripheral elements of “baller life” in absence of context or history. The NBA is not, despite dominant discourses, exclusively about sex, phat cribs/rides, bling-bling, and self-indulging egoistical athletes.
I am not the only person with a problem with these elements of the game. Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets told ESPN that NBA Ballers troubled him, given its replication of stereotypes and that he would prevent his son (Little T.J.) from playing such a game. Jerry West, in fact, went as far as refusing to participate in the game’s production given its representation of the NBA. “A player only has his integrity,” West told ESPN, giving one pause about the problems and racialized/gendered meaning central to this game. While West is troubled by the denigration of the game of basketball, and the glorification of materialism as a defining element of NBA life, I remained bothered by its reinscription of the dominant image of the selfish, bling-bling, black athlete that is slowly destroying American sports. Bryan Burwell captures the nature of this discourse with his description of the contemporary NBA: “An entire generation of slammin’, jammin’, no jump-shot, fundamentally unsound kids who have bought into NBA’s and Madison Avenue’s shallow MTV-generation marketing of the game. People with no soul for the essence of the game turned the poetry into gangster rap.” At the surface NBA Ballers appears to be a celebration or, at worst, a fetishization, of a baller’s life. Yet the game reflects a societal contempt for contemporary black athletes as a source of the declining values and beauty of the game.
NBA Ballers follows in the tradition of a series of video games—NFL Street and NBA Street—which transport their players into a glamorized ghetto. It follows a popular cultural obsession with both an imagined ghetto aesthetic and hip-hop. Fulfilling the call to sell all things “ghetto,” in absence of those undesirable/unpopular images (deindustrialization, police brutality, racial profiling, working parents, poverty or survival), NBA Ballers reflects a widespread tendency to glamorize the ghetto, rendering the product of mass capitalist accumulation and white supremacy as desirable.
Notwithstanding its “ghetto” veneer, NBA Ballers offers an alternative image to its predecessors as it transports a “ghetto imagination” into the suburbs. It is possible to live in your world (suburbs) and play in theirs (the ghetto; the life of an NBA star).
NBA Ballers is a virtual Cribs episode that sells the American Dream through black bodies. Reflecting the best of all worlds within a white imagination—hip-hop, “ghetto culture,” wealth, fame, naked women—NBA Ballers ushers in a new era of virtual gaming and the ghetto imagination, simultaneously celebrating (and condemning) the fact that you cannot take the ghetto out of an NBA baller, but you can take the ghetto into the suburbs.