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Finish Line: The Dangers of Mixtapes

If you’d like to read a more interactive version of this piece, click here for the ScrollKit link.

Editor’s note: This piece, written by Voice editor Edward Mei, is part of a larger project known as Finish Line, a blog created by Mei and editor Jared Schwartz with the intention of social commentary in the context of sports.

What makes YouTube so addictive? It’s easy, it’s free and it’s entertaining. You can find everything you want and don’t want to see. According to YouTube’s statistic page, over “100 hours of video are uploaded every minute.” Incredible. In this day and age, if you don’t know what YouTube is, you’re either living under a rock or in North Korea.

With the rise of YouTube came the rise of mixtapes: short, home-cooked basketball highlight videos that run a couple of minutes long, packed with a player’s best plays or a game’s best plays, usually accompanied by an intense, upbeat hip-hop tune and paired with an eye-catching, superlative-filled title that makes the whole experience of watching them more euphoric and entertaining.

Notice — short and entertaining. Short. Simple. Replayable. Repeatable. Play one mixtape, find a suitable Recommended Video, play that mixtape, and repeat. It’s the epitome of a typical YouTube experience, so easy yet so satisfying, and, in the past four to five years, basketball fans all over the world have become hooked onto this drug. It’s sensationalized how we watch the game by only showing what people want to see — high-flying dunks, ankle-breaking crossovers, sweet dimes — sugar-coated forms of basketball that are marketed to and enjoyed by even the most novice basketball fan.

Companies such as Ball Is Life and HoopMixTape have sprung out of this lucrative market in the past few years, finding the nation’s best basketball players and making mixtapes of them. But National Basketball Association players are already nationally televised, and most of the top college players also are, too. So what’s left? High schoolers and middle schoolers, mostly, scattered in high school and recreational gyms across the country. These companies fly across the country to seek out the nation’s top young talent, hire professional videographers to film their games, and create mixtapes for the “BOUNCIEST 14-year-old on the planet!!” or the “8-year-old with MORE HANDLES than YOU and YOU and YOU!!” With such bold, provocative statements, people click, people stay and people buy in. The more people click, the more people share — it’s a cycle that can’t be stopped.

But, as basketball fans, the use of mixtapes becomes dangerous when we start to buy in too much, and the highlights become so ingrained into our perception of basketball that they begin to skew the way we understand the game. Specifically, we cross the line when we form premature judgements about these young players and try to predict their success in college or in the NBA, with our knowledge of these players coming from mostly (if not completely) their mixtapes.

Think of mixtapes as the Sparknotes of basketball. We read the Sparknotes, a condensed version of the book we were supposed to read for English, and we feel convinced that we know enough about the book to get by. But when that reading quiz appears on our desks, or that essay assignment appears on Schoology, that’s when we truly realize that what we picked up from Sparknotes turned out to be insufficient, because, simply put, we have to read the book to understand it. In the same way, mixtapes and highlight reels provide an incomplete picture of a basketball player’s skill-set, work ethic, mentality and everything else that it takes to be a basketball player.

Out of all of the hyped-up players in the past few years, the recruiting class of 2013 best represents the dangers of this phenomenom. It’s no lie: in the past few years, experts around the country have touted this as the future of basketball and the best recruiting class since the 2003 NBA Draft class (Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, etc.). In their junior and senior years, members of this “elite” class had their college decisions nationally televised and their scouting processes closely tracked. Although none would admit it, even NBA teams seemed to be clearing cap space and building their rosters in anticipation for the 2014 NBA Draft, when most of these players would be available.

Listen to some of these comparisons: Andrew Wiggins, a freshman at Kansas, was called “Canadian Lebron” by GQ Sports. As a junior in high school, Jabari Parker, now a freshman at Duke, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and was deemed “The best high school basketball player since Lebron… .” Julius Randle, a freshman at the University of Kentucky, was named “Kentucky’s New King.” Aaron Gordon, local Archbishop Mitty alum and freshman at Arizona University, had a whole ESPN segment dedicated to comparing him with NBA All Star Blake Griffin. And the list continues.

To some extent, the praise is merited. But now, with a year of college basketball under their belts, it’s been clear that while this is still one of the more talented classes, it’s definitely not the saving grace of basketball that many hoped it would be. Parker and Wiggins have looked the most impressive out of the class — solid, explosive, with the potential to become stars, but at times their consistency and effort are questionable. Randle and Gordon, while both physically monsters at the high school level, have struggled to translate that dominance into a much bigger, faster college game. Andrew and Aaron Harrison (the Harrison twins), both top 5 players in the class, have vastly underperformed on a disappointing Kentucky team.

So if they aren’t as great as they’re reputed, what blinded us from seeing the truth about these players? What made us overestimate their abilities as basketball players?

To a large extent, mixtapes. If we look back and try to find the reasons behind the hype, we’ll find that a large part of this commotion started because early mixtapes dragged these players into the spotlight at an extremely young age. The most memorable: a Hoopmixtape video uploaded in 2009 entitled “Best 13 Year Old In The Nation 6’6 Andrew Wiggins!” that has racked up over 4.5 million views since. Thirteen years old?! Has this kid even had his Bar Mitzvah yet?!

Including that Wiggins video, countless mixtapes have appeared on YouTube, featuring dozens of the top players in the class of 2013 playing high school, Amateur Athletic Union and even Team USA basketball, amassing millions of hits and generating unprecedented buzz. Remember five-foot-six-inch Aquille “Crimestopper” Carr, whose two Hoopmixtape videos accumulated over 5.5 million views each and earned him a segment on CNN as Basketball’s Next Big Thing? After his 15 minutes were up, he skipped college, tried his hand at professional basketball in China, then returned to the States and played for the Delaware 87ers, a NBA Developmental League team. Earlier this year, he was actually cut by the 87ers, but did not give up on his dream to play in the NBA and will declare for the 2014 NBA Draft. I applaud his tenacity and his bravery, but “Basketball’s Next Big Thing?” Maybe just a little far-fetched, CNN.

Ted Young, senior guard at Archbishop Mitty High School and Aaron Gordon’s teammate last season, witnessed Gordon’s journey firsthand. To fans, Young believes that mixtapes misrepresented Gordon’s game: because many people only knew Gordon through his mixtapes, which were mostly comprised of Gordon dunking, people formed misconceptions that “all he could do was dunk.” This is Gordon’s tape at 16-years-old:

“What people don’t understand is that mixtapes showcase the best three minutes of a whole season, which is actually hours of actual basketball,” Young said. “For example, the perception was that Aaron could only dunk, which was not true, its just that for mixtapes what people want to see are rim-crushing posters, which Aaron does do, on top scoring from almost anywhere on the court, making nice passes to wide-open teammates, like me, playing lock down defense and grabbing rebounds for days.”

Young noted that this in turn added to the pressures and expectations that were unnecessarily and unreasonably placed on Gordon and others in his class.

“The praise is merited but the expectations are unfair,” he said. “I guess it’s okay to have such great expectations, but if they don’t meet the expectations, they shouldn’t be considered failures. It’s never fair to put pressure on players.”

These players aren’t the ones putting the mixtapes out there themselves; all of this attention and limelight is just as unexpected to the players as it is to fans. They aren’t asking to be called the next Lebron James or the next Blake Griffin, but they’re branded with these comparisons that will forever shape how people perceive their success. The sky-high expectations put on these young athletes are not only unfair to fans, who are deceived into believing that the next big thing is right around the corner, but more importantly, unfair to the players, who are criticized if they don’t live up to these unreasonable expectations.

Charles Barkley, former NBA MVP and Dream Team member, revealed in an interview with Sports Illustrated writer Richard Deitsch his issues with this same problem.

“Why would I watch a high school player?” Barkley told Deitsch. “That’s stupid. I’ve heard all the stuff. OK, he’s a great high school player. Let me see what happens when he gets to college. When people ask me who will be the Rookie of the Year, I say, ‘I don’t know.’ The guys have played against college players. Nobody expected Damian Lillard to win Rookie of the Year. I will watch the Wiggins kid play when I start watching college basketball. I am not going to project how great he will be. I mean, Kwame Brown was a great high school player.”

That’s the other thing: these players, these projects, these celebrities, are children. Teenagers. The most irrational, volatile creatures that exist. As these players progress from high school to college to the NBA, the competition gets bigger, faster, stronger, tougher and the spotlight shines a little brighter: all of these factors completely change the game from one stage to the next, and as fans we need to place more emphasis in judging players on attributes that will translate on all levels: their effort on defense, how unselfish they play, how they handle themselves off the court, etc. We try to calculate how they will end up, but we leave out many uncontrollable variables that could throw their lives in completely different directions.

To be fair, mixtapes aren’t all bad, either. Despite all of the negative impacts, Young admits that Gordon’s videos created a platform that increased Gordon’s publicity and fame, and allowed almost anyone, perhaps even scouts and coaches, to watch him play.

“Mixtapes have both positive and negative effects,” Young said. “On the positive side, mixtapes can allow basketball fans to see the highlight of the best players in the nation from all over the country. For example, before mixtapes only people in the Bay Area could see Aaron [Gordon]’s highlights, but thanks to mixtapes the whole country can now ‘ooh and ahh’ over his poster dunks.”

People often forget that the production of mixtapes is first and foremost a business. In its essence, it’s a form of easy-to-enjoy entertainment, much like video games, romantic comedies and instant noodles. Companies have capitalized on this untapped source of entertainment, and they’ve struck gold. So, as consumers, we should consume it just as that: entertainment, and nothing else.

If you don’t remember anything else, remember this: Hype is volatile, but often misguided, so treat it with caution. And if you can’t take it from me, then take it from former NBA coach and basketball broadcasting legend Dick Vitale. DICKY V, BABY!

“I think we’re all guilty of wanting instant gratification,” Vitale said on-air during a Dec. 10 college basketball game last year. “I said that on SportsCenter and I really believe that; we rate and evaluate these kids so early.”

Now, all we can do is hope that we won’t chase ourselves deeper and deeper into this abyss of “instant gratification.” Living in an ever-evolving, ever-increasing age of technology, we can all benefit from taking a step back from our phones, tablets or computers and acquiring a broader perspective, coming to conclusions without making snap judgements and slowing down.

And, for basketball’s sake, let’s just hope that YouTube stays the way it is, that it doesn’t condense even further into, say, six-second videos, set on repeat, capturing video in even more limited frames, making “instant gratification” just a little more “instant.” Oh, but someone already has: Vine.

As Barkley would say, turrible, just turrible.

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