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“Season Is On: Who, What, When, Where Got Game?”
New York Times
(Northern California edition)
Jan. 7, 1999

NBA Accord: They got game”
The San Francisco Chronicle
Jan. 6, 1999

“We got game”
New York Post
Jan. 7, 1999

“We’ve got game”
New York Daily News
Jan. 7, 1999

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The common (though unusual) grammatical structure of these headlines may strike readers as a grand coincidental error on the part of four independent newspapers. Or it may be construed as the joint effort of far-flung editors, motives unknown, to influence the acceptance of the awkward phrase “got game” into the American lexicon. Only the sharpest will garner that there may be a cultural reference hidden in the phraseology.

Those who propose a connection to the ubiquitous “Got Milk?” advertisements wouldn’t be altogether wrong — in both cases “got” replaces the correct “have” or “has” — nor would they be quite on target. In fact, the editors are alluding to a little-known film, He Got Game, created by the director Spike Lee.

At the crux of He Got Game is a high school basketball star being recruited by many colleges, and struggling with his decision. The headlines were written for stories about an eleventh hour agreement between the National Basketball Association’s team owners and players, which forestalled the cancellation of the 1999 season. The game basketball — and the potential of not having games or not playing the game — is the shared link here.

An added element of interest is the social dynamic inherent in this life/art connect. While most newspaper editors are white — descended from Europeans, characterized by reduced pigmentation — for the most part the most successful basketball players are black — with at least one ancestor African, skin tone a varying shade of brown. In the United States, black and white people speak American English but many blacks additionally have a unique vernacular — not unlike Southerners — which they are either raised to speak or employ to demonstrate they haven’t forgotten “where they come from,” i.e., that they have at least one African ancestor.

“He got game,” an example of a construction originated by blacks, means “He plays good basketball.” The question “He got game?” poses an assessment of ability — “Does he possess this skill, inherently? Is he in control of his game — and the game?” Of course “Is he worthy of the phrase?” is implied. In rap musician Sir Mix-A-Lot’s 1998 hit “Baby Got Back,” however, “got” is literal: “She has a healthy sized butt [‘back’ in black slang]” not “She has a command of her butt.”

So in the case of “We Got Game” or the Daily News’ creative take on it, “We’ve Got Game,” editors are indicating that, because professional basketball will resume, that “we”, meaning the fans, the world at large, once again possess an active pastime, i.e., “got game.”

The newspaper editors in question are aware of the limitations of their white-bred (or, more commonly, “white-bread”) language — and of the heightened meaning that use of black vernacular can bring to an otherwise bland headline. (Note: Black readers more than likely understood the headline’s significance from the get-go.) “Got Game” is not just a pithy way to note this event; it’s not just drawing on the familiar wording of a movie, which starred John Turturro, in an amusing cameo. It’s a symbol of a unified social struggle, of racial understanding, so subtle that it’s possibly lost on the average (white) reader. 1

There are those, of course, who would point to the “who’s in/who’s out” aspect of black/white relations. This line of thinking would reason that white editors, paranoid about not seeming adequate in the face of black culture — historically blacks’ taste in clothing style and music is respected over whites’ — or not being masculine enough amidst these athletes would cause them to grasp at the first phrase that comes along that makes them seem like they could be part of that community. That every newspaper broadcast the identical play on words would seem to support this argument — none take a risk by slightly altering the lexicon because getting it wrong could be a disaster.

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1 It seems the New York Times was aware of readers’ potential confusion. Although the early edition’s grammatically innovative headline was “Season Is On: Who, What, When, Where Got Game,” by the late edition this had been changed to the straightforward “Season Is On, Now It’s Who, What, When and Where?”