Anyone who tuned into the NBA All-Star game got a crash-course in the sport’s history courtesy of The Roots. The group, who have a longstanding relationship with NBC thanks to their ongoing stint as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, kicked off the event with a short musical celebrating the NBA and the spirit of competition that pervades the sport. It was vaguely reminiscent of Hamilton, in that original cast member Daveed Diggs participated, and because hyper-enunciated, talk-rapping about history has officially become something of a formula. Frontman Black Thought introduces the musical’s themes in an opening monologue, asking: “We live in a culture that has always been obsessed with one age-old question: Who is the best? When was the best ever? Where was the best place? Who’s the strongest, the fastest, the prettiest, the most stylistic? What is excellence? What is legendary? I mean, why do we even play? Define eminence. Who are the illustrious that elevated the sport to an art form? What is supremacy? What is greatness?” And with all these questions looming in the air, the production takes us on a journey through time with different performers standing in for different eras in NBA history, while also making a case for each era being the best.
The first era takes us to a 1950’s style sock-hop, where singer and “Dandy” fashion icon Jidenna elucidates on the good-old days. “It was the era of simplicity and high esteem,” he says, going on to prop up the often unpopular opinion that the old and original ways are also the best ones; that said, these ideas are pretty much Jidenna’s whole thing.
The next era, the 1970s, is represented by Daveed Diggs, a bunch of dancers ripped from the set of Soul Train and a funk soundtrack. Diggs, best known from Hamilton but also a member of noise-rap group clipping, boosts the 70s as a time when showmanship, personality, and fashion ruled the sport, citing athletes like Pistol Pete.
Naturally, for the 1980s, we get DMC and Jazzy Jeff doing the throwback rap they do best, talking up the spirit of friendly competition upheld by stalwarts like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Alternately, for the 90s, we get non-musician or about to break into a musical career, Michael B. Jordan rapping about the 90s and presumably the early aughts. The 90s was a time when sportsmanship gave way to singular players like Michael Jordan, a reputed trash-talker but also one of the best. It all ends with Black Thought saying that no particular era is the greatest: “In chasing ghosts of the past, we give birth to the present.” It’s all kind of corny, but all musicals, even ones that clock in at under eight minutes are allowed to be a little corny, right? Flaws and all, it’s a good way to brush up on a sport that’s always been tied to contemporary pop culture and music.