NBA All Star Weekend 2017
Featuring "The Evolution of Greatness"
Basketball fans who tuned into this year’s NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans most likely did so expecting an exciting matchup, some incredible feats of athleticism, and a healthy dose of spectacle. But it’s a fair bet that no one was expecting the game to open with The Roots serving up 50 years of NBA history in an entirely original, star-studded musical retrospective (emphasis on the “retro”).
The 2017 All-Star Game tipped off with an introduction titled “The Evolution of Greatness”. This multimedia, music-driven concept piece took viewers on a journey through all the different eras of NBA history, which were personified by contemporary artists Jidenna, Daveed Diggs, Michael B. Jordan, Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels and DJ Jazzy Jeff. So, how did this experiment in form and content come to be, and how did One Foot get roped into the fun?
“The Evolution of Greatness” was first conceived by Rudy Crew—Creative Director of the NBA All Star Weekend and longtime friend of One Foot—after The Roots expressed an interest in being part of the festivities. With the eclectic, wide-ranging talents of The Roots in mind, Rudy began envisioning a piece that would challenge the idea that the distinctive eras of basketball can—or should—be pitted against each other.
For diehard basketball fans, the debate over which era in the game’s history reigns supreme is perpetual, heated, and oftentimes personal. This habit of competitive comparison is deeply embedded in NBA fan culture. But instead of putting different kinds of greatness in competition with each other, Rudy wanted this year’s intro performance to be a conversation exploring the progression and culmination of greatness. The Roots were down with Rudy’s vision, and development for “The Evolution of Greatness” began.
Ahmir Thompson (Questlove) and Tariq Trotter (Black Thought) of The Roots have long been testing the boundaries between music, theatre, and live entertainment. The Roots are the longstanding house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late night endeavors, and Questlove executive-produced the Grammy-winning cast album for the hip hop musical Hamilton. In fact, it may have been partially thanks to the success of Hamilton that audiences were ready to roll with the highly theatrical, spoken-word-meets-Socratic-seminar style of “The Evolution of Greatness”.
One Foot goes way back with the NBA, especially our Executive Producers Amanda Back and Kevin Merritt. We’ve been collaborating with them for over a decade, and have worked on a number of All-Star Weekends in that time. So when Rudy suggested that One Foot team up with Black Thought to start drafting the script for “The Evolution of Greatness”, we were all over it.
We like to joke that it's our job is to write the "bad version" and go from there. Using that mantra allows us to dive into the brainstorming and drafting process without getting too precious about our work. With decades of experience in live entertainment, we know that getting something down on paper is crucial to getting the creative juices flowing. We also know that our celebrity collaborating want something to react to and once we start the processes all sorts of new and interesting ideas will emerge. The breakneck pace of live TV production demands us to be extremely agile and get comfy with the classic writer advice to “kill your darlings” left, right and center. There isn’t time to wait around for the perfect words to come to you—you’ve just got to grab the first ones that pop into your mind and start with them.
Our process began with some pretty extensive research into NBA history. We wrangled all that information into a quick and dirty first draft, carving out the arc and emotional journey of the piece. Black Thought then translated that script into rap and spoken-word. Most of our writing sessions went like this: we would share a chunk of our script outline with Black Thought, who would mull it over for… oh, about fifteen minutes before coming back with a series of rhymes that captured the facts, sentiment, and flavor of the era at hand. All told, the entire piece was written in less than six weeks.
This wasn’t the first time we’ve put our heads together with The Roots. Our Producer Kevin Merritt worked briefly with manager Shawn Gee and Questlove on the 2014 Tony Awards, orchestrating a bit in which Hugh Jackman, T.I., and LL Cool J performed a rap mashup of The Music Man. But this time around, an entirely original piece came out of our collaboration. Between the freshness and originality of the script, the involvement of The Roots, and our co-founder Amanda Back’s long-standing relationships in the industry, we knew that we’d be able to snag the interest of some incredible performers.
Casting “The Evolution of Greatness” was an exciting challenge for us. Our task was to find the perfect performers to portray the different decades of NBA history and embody the qualities that made those eras great. Eventually, the team decided that recording artist Jidenna would be perfect to rep the classy 50s and 60s, singing the praises of the NBA’s simpler times. Hamilton star Daveed Diggs would celebrate the style and swagger of the 70s. Actor Michael B. Jordan (who can apparently do everything) would glorify the power of the 90s. But it was the 80s that led to the wildest series of events in the casting process.
As we were writing the raps for “The Evolution of Greatness”, we initially used temp tracks that captured the musical flavor of each era. These tracks informed the writing process, helping us differentiate the sound of each decade. Rudy Crew selected the tracks, drawing from icons like Nirvana for the 90s and Superfly for the 70s. When selecting a sound for the 80s, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Run DMC were the perfect inspiration to have on hand. So perfect that we thought, why not just cast the real deal if we can swing it? As luck would have it, Questlove happened to have DJ Jazzy Jeff’s number in his phone and casually texted him about coming on board with Darryl 'DMC' McDaniels. The 80s legends agreed, and our cast was complete.
“The Evolution of Greatness” incorporates not only The Roots’ original music and lyrics, but dancers decked out in period fashion and video montages of basketball legends from Bill Russell to Michael Jordan. Yet it isn’t just the spectacular combination of elements you see onstage that makes “The Evolution of Greatness” unique; it’s the theatrical storytelling riding beneath the surface. The incorporation of those conventions are meant to imbue the piece with its emotional heft and ultimate payoff.
Of course, those storytelling elements aren’t foregrounded during the performance. Most people watching the All-Star Game intro probably couldn’t tell you who the protagonist of the intro was, or the nature of its central conflict. But that’s exactly the point. The lines between genre and medium in entertainment seem to be getting blurrier by the day. Projects like Hamilton and bands like The Roots prove that melded genres can make for innovative, captivating, and very commercially successful art. There’s great potential in this kind of artistic crossbreeding, the results of which were on full display at the NBA All-Star Game. The Roots have already expressed an interest in pushing the envelope even further when it comes to mashing up sports, theatre, and live entertainment.
“‘The Evolution of Greatness’ was an amazing experience,” Black Thought said in an interview with Billboard, “It’s something that we hope to have been a steppingstone for us to come back and not only do more NBA All-Star performances, but do halftime performances at events like the Super Bowl. I think we could really play the Olympics.”
After seeing the All-Star Intro come together firsthand, we think so too. Here’s to much more where “The Evolution of Greatness” came from!