Without a doubt, the behavior of the basketball stars in the nineties heightened the reputation of the African-American community, and brought basketball into mainstream prominence. They proved their black masculinity through both leadership and statesmanship, and paved the road for the players of today's NBA.
Despite the exceptional standards that the players of the nineties set, the basketball culture in the new millennium seems to differ drastically. The Kobe generation of athletes desire individual achievement and personal glory rather than communal empowerment. These players hunger for basketball to validate their identity and crown their greatness. Dr. Mohammed of the University of Irvine argues that this modern generation of players ignores the contact hypothesis (Mohammed 13) because they perceive their black masculinity as innately tied to racial exclusion. These players want to revert to a more stereotypical definition of black masculinity, represented by street basketball and street jargon. The new black masculinity was similar in form to its predecessor in that it demands a close knit circle of black athletes, but instead of acting as community spokespeople, these athletes see their black heritage as an exclusive club. One white player in a nearby Santa Monica Y noticed that, "There were too many [black] kids up here playing and the game was getting too street" (Mohammed 86). This testimonial validates growing concerns that this new brand of "black basketball" alienates basketball enthusiasts in the mainstream and instead serves a purely black counterculture. The new black culture of basketball attempts to isolate the African-American game as unique and in doing so defines black masculinity as strength in solidarity and racial exclusion (Mohammed 85). Black players, in what they perceive as a predominately white owned and white watched sport, "play for themselves" (Mohammed 87). This generation sees basketball not as a means to achieve recognition for their community, but for themselves.
Basketball becomes a validation of their worth as black men. Intricately connected to the hip hop culture, athletes such as Sebastian Telfair, Josh Smith, and Gerald Greene, lose sight of the allure of education and team success that is associated with college basketball and instead want to immediately pursue a career in the NBA. The physical and aggressive game that modern athletes play, contrasts with the stylistic, graceful and sometimes gravity defying game that Michael and his peers exposed the league to. Dr. Mohammed cautions that the growing trend towards street basketball will create a racial chasm that "could destroy the racial and ethnic bonds that previous generations have worked hard to develop" (Mohammed 120). "Black Street ball" excludes other races in both its style and on court play, and reaffirms certain racial stereotypes such as "black players are more athletic" and "black players are showoffs." This kind of labeling creates an inferiority complex for both the white majority and black minority. The white majority views this basketball counterculture as evidence that basketball is a primarily black sport, reintroducing many of the racial barriers that the players of the nineties tried so hard to break. For African-Americans, basketball becomes the means to prove their black masculinity to their fellow athletes and reinforces their belief that black players cannot break into the mainstream without "selling out" to the established culture (Mohammed 39). Kobe Bryant in a very real sense became the hero of black basketball youth because he represents what can be achieved for a black athlete on an individual level as long as they have the "me against the world" mentality. Black masculinity transforms from a process of communal recognition for an athlete's contributions to his community, into a much more self-centered measurement of wealth and ability based on individual achievements.
The Kobe generation certainly has many followers, but to ignore the many upstanding citizens and role models who follow in the footsteps of their 90s heroes is unfair. For each player that plays the Kobe Bryant style of "me first basketball," other equally talented players use more mature role models that harkens back to a previous decade of values and goals. These athletes, such as Shaquille O'Neal, still see themselves as ambassadors of basketball, and their community. They serve as testimonial to the maturity of modern players through both on court play and off court demeanor. Shaq not only gives back to his community through charities, Christmas Santa parties (Walton December 2004) and personal appearances, he is also actively concerned about the reputation of the game and its players. Shaq exudes confidence, and even though he lacks "street cred" his black masculinity is an unquestionable part of his identity. Shaq as well as many other players who never became entangled in the allure of street basketball reveal that the Kobe generation could very well be a phase. They still uphold the definition of masculinity as strength through community, rather than individual achievement.
The conflict between the "old guard" and Kobe generation represents hope that basketball can still remain in its prominent position in mainstream society. More than anything else, it brings to light that selfish basketball is not necessarily winning basketball and the definition of masculinity that Kobe heralds cannot ultimately succeed. The message that Shaq sends is that hip hop basketball is nothing more than a trend; only through maturity and team oriented basketball can elite players hope to succeed on the world's biggest stage.
The conflicting definition of black masculinity among African-American athletes can only be resolved by an examination of their impact on the next generation of players. The redefinition of black masculinity in the Kobe generation impacts the infrastructure of African-American society from the bottom up. One Washington Post article reports that Freedom High School, a project high school, built a state of the art gymnasium (Toussaint, 2004) when it can barely afford computers and updated textbooks for its students. Similar state of the art gyms are being erected around the country, especially in urban centers where many of today's top young black athletes are produced. In a time of massive education reform and nation wide spending cuts, these new facilities seem a stark contrast to the old and crusty classrooms they stand next to. The message sent to African-American youth from this tender age is that basketball, rather than education, represents their best chance to escape the poverty of the ghetto (Gaston 2005). The funding from these schools comes in no small part from the generous donations of the NBA players that come from these underprivileged areas. Their donation to their alma mater's athletics department reinforces the implicit message that sports should take precedence over academics (Gaston 2005). For these already established NBA players, basketball became the mechanism for their success, and because they never received the proper education to understand the importance of developing academically sound youth, they now collectively shun it to a secondary position. From this young and impressionable age, black players are bombarded with messages from their peers and icons that they must succeed at basketball in order to truly prove their masculinity and attain recognition (Gaston 2005). This exact mentality is what forges the Kobe generation's definition of black masculinity through individual gain. These players do not play basketball because they love to play the game; they see it as a viable career path. David Thompson argues that the league itself must take actions to stop these talented youth from coming into the league, he argues that, "basketball is a craft much like anything else, and a player, especially a young one must be given the opportunity to go to college and perfect their craft"(Ford, 2005). The ill effects of not receiving college training have become evident as young stars are now coming into their own. The prominent case of Kobe Bryant and his rape trials highlight the emotional underdevelopment that occurs when a player enters the league too early. These players don't understand the concept of team play and never had the tutelage of a great college coach. When they come into the NBA they are vulnerable and isolated, rather than coming from a prestigious school where a player can "build a friendship network with alumni and peers" (Halberstam 58), these players have no mentor or friend to help them adjust to their new environment. A seemingly more important point is that young players who enter directly into the league lack the ability to handle the media effectively. As Kobe Bryant proved with his trial and oftentimes botched attempts at personal interviews, college provides an excellent litmus test for players to handle the pressures of the media (Halberstam, 103). In the final analysis, the disturbing trend of young basketball players that become fixated with the wealth of playing professional basketball has weakened the African-American community. Players of the Kobe generation lack a firm grasp of why they play basketball, but instead only want all the secondary things such as wealth and respect that comes with being a professional player. The league and its role model players must redouble their efforts to change the false propaganda that African-American youth are…