Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We're All Chuck Brown's People

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There are two types of people whose lives take place in Washington, DC: those who measure time in generations and those who mark it using elections. The folks who ride into town via the popular vote bring with them everything they ever loved about their home districts. The folks who were born in the District have only a few things to call their own: the Redskins (cringe), mumbo sauce, that DC slang (bamma), New Balance sneakers and Go Go music.

Last week, after a potent combination of natural disasters worked the psyches of the people whose lives take place in our nation's capital, the folks who are from DC checked their wounds then crammed into the 9:30 Club to celebrate Chuck Brown's birthday.

It's okay if you don't know who Chuck Brown is. He achieved modest success with this song. He recently earned a Grammy nomination for pairing with Jill Scott on this one. He is, more importantly, the Godfather of Go Go Music. This point is not disputed. It is only celebrated. And it is only celebrated by folks who are from DC.

Go Go doesn't travel. The public radio station in Seattle doesn't allocate a 120-minute Sunday night block to it. JAM'N 94.5 in Boston doesn't carve out lunch hours to give listeners a taste. People of a certain age will remember "Da Butt." People of a different age will remember "Let Me Clear My Throat." Apart from that, Go Go doesn't really exist. Except for in that sweet oasis that still can't get a seat in Congress.

Chuck Brown made Go Go up out of funk and jazz and whatever else he could find more than 30 years ago. And he gave it to the people from DC. There isn't any explanation that will help an outsider understand it. In addition to drums, guitars and keys, there are conga drums, horns and as much cowbell as you can stand. The instruments combine to create multiple layers of percussion that can make a song lazier or more frenetic. It can be polyrhythmic in a way that is utterly confusing. It can also free anyone--even the stiffest, saltiest cracker--to let their hips sway. It's Go Go. It's much better as a felt experience.

Image via The Meta Picture

As August drew to a close, the DC air smelled unsettled and eager. Congress had solved that whole Debt Ceiling problem, but hadn't really made any progress on the Debt. No one was happy. No one felt as if there were a choice. Thousands of plastic chairs sprouted from the grounds of the National Mall in preparation for the grand unveiling of the MLK Memorial. Proud Americans wearing church clothes marched into town to sneak a peek and scout a spot from which to watch President Obama commemorate the perfect moment that consumed those grounds 48 years ago. Summer was ending. And no one knew for certain what was about to begin.

Hurricanes rarely blow through the District of Columbia. Earthquakes are even more foreign. The city endured one of each in less time than it took the good Lord to do all that creating. Buildings shook. Some cracked. Trees went down. Power went out. A few cars were smashed. And a number of basements were flooded. Residents whose home states are Florida and California, respectively, shrugged them off. In comparison to what is normal elsewhere, the disasters that struck DC last week were hardly disastrous.

By Sunday morning, the wrath had passed. Neighbors spilled into the streets and were greeted by sunshine. It was a pretty day to clean up leaves and broken branches. If you were so fortunate. If you found yourself wrestling with insurance companies over who would pay to replace your car after the neighbor's decaying tree flattened it...well...the disasters were indeed disastrous.

The earliest casualty attributed to the hurricane was the MLK Memorial unveiling. It had been cancelled two days after the earthquake and two days before the hurricane. It didn't deter folks from making their pilgrimages, but it did postpone what was to have been a bright, shining moment for the President. And it made thousands of bootleg t-shirts emblazoned with "August 28" oddly irrelevant. As if that date could ever lack meaning.

Dr. King delivered the "I Have a Dream" speech a week after Chuck Brown's 27th birthday. Chuck was originally scheduled to wind some folks up the night before his 75th at the 9:30 Club, another DC institution. The hurricane bumped his annual birthday concert to Sunday. After a week unlike any other, 1,200-some people streamed into the U Street corridor--many from the surrounding neighborhoods in Northwest DC--to celebrate with Chuck.

Image via The Washington Post

DC will always be bifurcated. The divergent tension that arises between the people who stay in the city and the people who pass through makes it unique among American metropolises. The District compares favorably with New York and Los Angeles in that it is built to absorb the unusual ambitions of a large number of transients. DC is much, much smaller than either of them and, traditionally, it absorbs only one kind of ambition.

That has begun to change in our nation's capital as government has grown. The tech and start-up communities have ballooned alongside it. More and more transients are measuring time in generations. Where they do, gentrification creeps into neighborhoods at its own pace to wash away the presumed sins of the people who came before them.

The folks who are from DC still suffer the Redskins (cringe) with pride. They still argue over which Chinese spot has the best mumbo sauce. And they still love Go Go. The things that combine to attach a sense of meaning and belonging to their place do not wane even if their place in the city does.

The decay of its indigenous culture is not confined to DC. You can witness this in nearly every American city. Some have matured without really developing a coherent identity. Others have resorted to fetish to preserve theirs--with good reason.

A key part of what makes us American is not that we pledge allegiance to a particular flag, but that we take pride in a highly localized sense of place. We are blessed (or cursed) with an unmatched combination of space, freedom and a minimalist national identity. Everyone could be American so anyone can choose a place to represent and bring it with them to the great American party. Provincialism isn't unique to the United States but we have definitely perfected it here.

There are fewer and fewer opportunities for any city to experience a perfect moment. For the people who are from that place to have their character tested and be invited to express themselves using the poetry that defines them.

There is poetry in the strings of Chuck Brown's guitar. At a moment when the people of his city were tested, he played for them. And they danced. Like they always do.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some Potentially Intelligent Babbling About the Tribe Movie

[Image via]

At one time, A Tribe Called Quest was known for raising some unusually important questions:

What's an MC if he doesn't have stamina?
What is hip hop if it doesn't have violence?
What are laws if they ain't fair and equal?
What is a woman if she doesn't say maybe?
What would be my penal chord if it wasn't brown?

With his directorial debut, Michael Rapaport has raised a crucial question of his own:

Why doesn't A Tribe Called Quest make music together any more?

The Source kinda answered that one back in 1998 when they interviewed the group after Tribe formally disbanded. We were told then that the group had exhausted itself creatively and no longer wanted to carry on the years-long war it had waged with its record label. There was probably some truth to that. But was it the whole truth? Not exactly. Certainly not in the mind of Rapaport. In Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, his answer reframes the mythology of the most beloved hip hop group of all time.

[Image via Suburban Apologist]

The adoration for Tribe began not long after a guy formerly called Jonathan Davis spit into a microphone, "Now, I'm from from A Tribe Called Quest." The love morphed as the crew fully congealed and proceeded to record three of the greatest albums any combination of musicians ever managed to get released: People's Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders. okayplayers will forever argue which album was more perfect--or if, indeed, any of the three were perfect. They would almost have to agree, however, that Tribe occupied the rarest space in the hearts and pocketbooks of bohemians, backpackers, white people who didn't crap the roll and people with generally good taste in music. After all, three platinum plaques and two gold plaques hang on somebody's wall on Linden Boulevard.

The love Tribe received always seemed guided by hip hop's better angels. Their music, for the most part, was fun. And when it wasn't strictly that, it was thought-provoking. It never emitted the contempt so much hip hop has been laced with. When they boasted, they remained playful. Never arrogant. And in their social critiques, Tribe oozed a light-hearted nobility that came to represent hip hop's highest aspirations. We loved them for all of those things. What we weren't completely aware of was the simple human tensions that were slowly dividing Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi. Revealing and exploring those tensions is the primary objective of Rapaport's film.

[Image via oystermag]

The opening moments of Rapaport's film tease out both things it is about to do for us. First, it will take us on a head-nodding, shouting-lyrics-at-the-screen trip down memory lane. Second, it will portray a classic clash of egos.

Rapaport gives Phife the first word. His raspy voiceover contemplates, "I can't put a finger on Q-Tip...I guess you could call it a love/hate relationship..." The sound byte is ironic. Phife rarely got the first word on a Tribe song. Or the last. His rhymes were frequently sandwiched between verses from the Abstract. It also prefigures Rapaport's thesis: Phife loathed Q-Tip's shadow.

The heavier you were into Tribe, the more likely you already suspected that. It was no secret that Phife had moved to Atlanta after Midnight Marauders. And it was self-evident that he and Q-Tip were moving in different directions creatively upon listening to Beats, Rhymes & Life. Speculation circa 1996 had it that Consequence, Q-Tip's cousin, would eventually replace Phife. Similarly, the otherworldly presence of J Dilla--shrouded by the simple "Produced by The Ummah" credit--extended the mystery of Tribe. Jarobi, after all, did kinda just leave the group without much explanation. And plenty of folks were still learning that Q-Tip, not Ali Shaheed Muhammad, had really been the group's driving production force. For years, we didn't ask many questions about how the magic was made. Over time, we all began to wonder. As we wondered, our thoughts drifted melodically from how to when.

When the break-up finally did happen in 1998, it made sense. The average lifespan of a hip hop group had always been pretty short. Maybe that was a function of the traditional rapper's ego trip. Emcees are not, by nature, humble dudes. They can learn humility and practice it well. But when they pick up a pen or grip a microphone to rock 20,000 people, they are committing an act that is supposed to be about affirming the self in the most aggrandizing way possible. (At least that's the way it used to be. Before watery-eyed confessionals emerged as a paradoxical prerequisite for ensuring maximum iTunes downloads.) How long can any collection of throbbing egos expect to remain in tact? We may not have fully understood the conflicts that plagued Tribe, but we understood that they'd eventually have to go their own separate ways. Over the years, we pieced together bits of data--a solo joint from Phife, an interview with Q-Tip--to fill out the story. And we were satisfied enough to divert our attention to the reunion rumors. Maybe we never needed Rapaport's film. We probably always wanted it, though.

[Image via ManifestWorldWide]

The first 40 minutes of the film is all memory lane. Pictures of Q-Tip and Phife from elementary school. The story of Phife befriending the beatboxing, basketball-playing Jarobi. Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad hanging out at their alma mater, Murry Bergtraum High School, in Manhattan. We get to see what the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Monie Love, Dres from Black Sheep, Large Professor and DJ Red Alert, among others, looked like yesterday and what they look like today. (SPOILER: Everyone "awwwws" when Red Alert comes on screen. Duke is looking a lot like the granddaddy that he surely is.) We get video excerpts of some of the classics: El Segundo. Bonita. Can I Kick It? Buggin' Out. Check the Rhyme. Scenario. Oh My God. Electric Relaxation. (SPOILER: Everyone in the theatre will sing along with each of those songs. Even if it's just you and four unconnected strangers.)

Memory lane is littered with character-framing vignettes of Q-Tip, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi. Jarobi is a chef. Or a restauranteur. Probably both. It's not completely clear. What is clear from the film is that he chose that path for himself. Ali Shaheed Muhammad is a musician's musician. He plays because he loves to play. Just in case you'd lost track of him since 1998, the film reminds us of the career he's built post-Tribe. As they have always been in the group hierarchy, neither Jarobi nor Ali Shaheed Muhammad play a central role in the film. Consequently, neither man's ego co-stars here. Nor does either man figure antagonistically in Rapaport's Tribe story. He allows both to cruise comfortably in their lanes while focusing his story on the clash between Phife and Q-Tip.

The Funky Diabetic has never been shy about who he is. His complexion is that of a hockey puck. His height is that of Muggsy Bogues. And his favorite form of birth control is busting off on a couch. Rapaport's representation of Phife underscores all of those traits and positions him as the classic Little Man: Pointedly insecure. Easily provoked. Eager to prove himself. Unwilling to accept less than what he believes he is due.

The Abstract Poetic represents Queens. And so much more. Rapaport's version of Q-Tip is a big music nerd who left his humble neighborhood a long time ago in favor of a journey deep into his own brilliance. Musicians who followed him--The Roots, Pharrell and Common--testify as to how near he has come to genius. Business partners--Chris Lighty and Barry Weiss--testify as to how emotionally maladjusted he may be. In sum, Rapaport presents Q-Tip as a classic Aries Artist: Highly self-satisfied. Awkward to work with. Sickeningly talented.

The conflict between the two men is a battle between good and great. Rare is the collaboration where all parties are equally talented. There's usually a pecking order. Particularly among musicians. The most talented member stands apart from the others. Like the best player on a basketball team. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest. The top talent often wills the group to meets its own elite standards. The good carries an odd responsibility that it must carry adroitly for the group to be successful. Moreover, only the most special kind of good can get along with great. It takes a good that is utterly comfortable in its goodness and lacks any yearning to be great by itself. It also takes a patient, accepting kind of good because great does not naturally bend to accommodate the good. The great tends to lack empathy on a small scale. It can feel deeply on a large scale. But when confronted by the natural limits of the good, the great scoffs. The great too easily forgets that the good shares its goals.

Early in Rapaport's film, Q-Tip recalls Phife's late embrace of his obligation to the group. Phife acknowledges that it took him at least the first album to recognize his artistic and financial potential as a rapper. When Phife recounts recording verse one of Buggin' Out, his official coming out party, he plots the point where he simultaneously turned the corner and entered into that battle of good versus great.

Throughout Rapaport's film, we follow Phife's skirmishes with diabetes. We learn his diagnosis came as an adult. That other members of his family have it. And that he really does (or did) drink a lot of soda. Especially Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper. We learn the cost his ongoing care motivated him to push the guys to accept one of the many touring offers Tribe had on the table. Rapaport even gives us a glimpse of a major surgery that saved Phife's life. Those are the happy parts.

In the midst of the trip down memory lane, a brief clip of a Q-Tip interview reveals that he struggled to accept Phife's condition. "Phife was young. Shouldn't he be able to control his diabetes? What if we pushed him to live healthier?" The noble intentions of the young Q-Tip positioned him as an unsolicited paternal figure. The young Phife responded poorly to that. So did the old Phife.

A sequence worthy of MTV, E! or some other inelegant cable network goes like this: Phife's body wears down from dialysis while Tribe headlines Rock the Bells in 2008. He spends half of a show in LA leaning on Jarobi. Q-Tip is about to finish a verse and toss to Phife. Q-Tip says, "Look alive. Look at Phife." Or something to that effect. The sickly Phife rages against Q-Tip.

Maybe Q-Tip always resented Phife for not being as serious as he was about the music. Or for not taking better care of himself. ("Damn! Phife! You got fat!") Those suppositions aren't completely fair to Q-Tip, but they're not completely baseless either. Phife clearly resented Q-Tip for not treating him as an equal. That is as plain an argument as Rapaport's film makes. His interpretation of the two men also makes Tribe's body of work read, in hindsight, as a minor miracle. And, perhaps, as a testament to how deeply each man ultimately values the friendship. How else could such a clash of egos acquiesce to deliver such a volume of brilliant music?

[Image via Broadsheet Melbourne]

Something about the opening chords of the film makes it feel like it was tuned by someone who equates reality TV with documentary. As those two things are becoming more and more difficult to distinguish, we cannot blame Rapaport for dabbling in both. The drama he presents is cheap and sensational. It is also unusually sincere. The film is really a bridge doc. Some elements are revelatory in a way that would make the Maysles brothers proud. Other bits are so efficiently reductive as to cause even Mark Burnett to blush. If you don't bring a deep knowledge of Tribe with you to the movie theatre, you may have a hard time properly evaluating the Tribe story while the film teeters between the two disciplines.

For example, one would expect some insight as to what role Consequence played in the devolving relationship between Phife and Q-Tip. If you go back through the Tribe catalogue, you can hear Phife growing as an emcee. By the time Tribe records Midnight Marauders, Phife is nearly equal in skill to Q-Tip. His increased presence on that album implies the group is choosing to recognize his artistic ascent. Suddenly, on Beats, Rhymes & Life, Phife is splitting time with the new guy who just happens to be his partner's cousin. This storyline is acknowledged in the film by a single sentence attributed to Barry Weiss. It is possible Rapaport's research revealed that Consequence's presence was of little, er, consequence to the tensions that grew between Phife and Q-Tip. It is also possible he dismissed it conveniently to better serve the simplicity of the ego clash between the insecure diabetic and the self-centered artist.

There is a similar lack of attention paid to the role J Dilla had in shaping Tribe's final albums. Hell, the last two albums are barely mentioned in the film at all. Rapaport's version of events also ignores the awkward building of the Tribe fan base. The consumer reception for People's Instinctive Travels & The Paths of Rhythm was certainly positive, but the critical response to that record outpaced the developing love affair between hip hop fans and Tribe. It took the average listener at least an album and a half to decide these funky-looking dudes making this fun music were acceptable to ride for.

Rapaport deserves to be criticized for some of the artistic license he has employed with the Tribe story. He has not, however, missed an opportunity or botched a play. His film is a good one. No one who loves Tribe like he did (or does) could do any less than that. What is most unfortunate here is that the answer to his question does not yield the best possible query of all: When is Tribe's next album dropping?

That would just be wishful thinking. The kind you'd have entertained back when you assumed Tribe was just a simple love movement.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Smartest (And Longest) Thing You'll Read About the 2011 NCAA Final Four

The business of sport has always lived and died by its own hyperbole.

Professional sports leagues wear no veil. And they make no apologies. Their official color is either black or red. Civic pride is a cute benefit, but the home team really only belongs to one person--or one corporate entity. So their hype machines churn out whatever story best suits the bottom line this year. And they'll do the same next year.

Collegiate sports, on the other hand, tend to be a big gray contradiction. Student-athletes are supposed to represent the hermaphroditic ideal of how an institution of higher learning trains both the mind and the body. The games in which those brainy-brawny "amateurs" perform are presented to us as aspirational morality plays meant to stir institutional pride. While the exaggerated loyalty inspired by institutional pride guarantees any NCAA athletic program some annual revenues, Nike didn't lock the University of Kentucky into an all-school contract worth eight figures because 37,000 Wildcats pay their dues to the UK alumni association each year.

The NCAA Tournament, or March Madness, is the ultimate exercise in hyperbole. It generates hella money because the NCAA and all of its partners traffic in classic story lines without regard for whatever the truth really is. As long as the games are exciting, the excitement becomes the truth. And the narrative of the 2011 NCAA Final Four couldn't be more exciting or more classic. No matter who wins this Saturday, there will be a Cinderella and there will be a Blue Blood for Cinderella to dance with on the biggest Big Monday of this basketball season.

Somewhere behind that storyline, I'm afraid, there is also the awkward question of how the NCAA defines itself. When the world of college basketball has split so neatly into two separate, but equal classes, can we really be expected to believe the great fiction that the organization's mission is to preserve the integrity of "amateur" athletics? Indeed, has that ever really been its mission?

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In the Days of Wayback
You can't fault the NCAA for being a bunch of carnival barkers. They get it honestly. The NIT--which used to be the bigger of the Big Dances--was founded in 1938 by a bunch of New York writers. They sold the event to a conglomeration of New York universities shortly thereafter. It was a small affair that occupied Madison Square Garden, basketball's largest stage, each spring to provide a showcase for potential NBA prospects. The meat market featured six teams at first. Then eight in 1941. Then twelve in 1949. Then a whopping fourteen teams in 1965. The New York-based NIT had a pretty good run before ultimately being eclipsed by the NCAA Tournament somewhere around that time. That's when John Wooden began to transform UCLA from mere California rock to bright, shiny American diamond. (Perhaps with an alleged nudge from Sam Gilbert.)

From the establishment of the NCAA's progenitor organization, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), in 1906 through 1955, all of its member institutions were lumped together for the purpose of obeying the same rules of play in order to create a safer experience for players. (That's why the NCAA existed in the first place: to create a single standard of rules for amateur sports in the United States.) The NCAA Tournament launched in 1939 with only eight teams. It was quicker to expand than the NIT, but it stumbled early by limiting invites to conference winners. In the late-1950s, when the NCAA started to segregate the major universities from the small colleges, its basketball tournament began inviting 20+ teams. Also, the percentage of U.S. homes owning a television climbed from 10% in 1950 to 87% in 1960 making the media capital of the world a slightly less necessary marketing tool. Before Lew Alcindor's size 19 ever touched Westwood's lush grasses, the NCAA had taken small steps that would coincide with a national technological infiltration to eventually create everyone's favorite Q2 passion play. Along the way it would have to survive its first major identity crisis.

In 1951, the New York District Attorney filed the first of dozens of charges as part of a major point shaving scandal. CCNY, the only school ever to win the NIT and NCAA Tournaments in the same year, was at the heart of the scandal. Half of its roster got indicted. Most received suspended sentences. As the scandal engulfed other programs--seven in all including Kentucky--the question that would come to threaten the NCAA's greatest fiction emerged: are the players truly amateurs or are they major components of a massive business enterprise?

When players like Connie Hawkins were cast aside by the NCAA as pseudo-criminals, the TV rights and the apparel contracts that would come to define its business model did not exist at all. Maybe the folks at Kentucky, the first basketball superpower, were living well but the spoils of the NCAA Tournament were still rather fresh. Where the players were concerned, we could presume that 20-year-olds who endured the Great Depression were prone to worry less about the illusion of integrity and more about having a few dollars in their pocket. While safety concerns had abated, rule enforcement was the obvious heritage and the easy choice of mission for the NCAA. The players, who were already getting free educations, had to pay, so they did and the NCAA had a story it could stick to while the business model slowly emerged.

By the time Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed his third NCAA championship (and UCLA's fifth) in 1969, 95% of U.S. households owned a TV and the NCAA Tournament was being partially broadcast on NBC. Alcindor/Abdul-Jabbar--and Bill Walton after him--created a Goliath for some college basketball fans to root against. The mythology of Coach Wooden's noble leadership provided a righteous hero for other college basketball fans to worship. Wooden may have been the best, but he wasn't the only coach to be iconified. Phog Allen (Kansas), Henry Iba (Oklahoma State), and Adolph Rupp (Kentucky) all have large buildings named in their honor. (Clarence "Big House" Gaines would be on that list had his school not been cast aside with the other little guys.) The stories were easy enough to sell, but revenues remained modest. That began to change in parallel with Blue Ribbon Sports' import business evolving to become Nike, Inc.

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Magic and Bird and Georgetown and Sonny...on CBS!
The NCAA Tournament had always pegged its own mythology to the local legends and larger than life characters who danced on its stage. Before there was UCLA, one of the Bay Area's finest, Bill Russell, lead the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive titles. Zeke from Cabin Creek, who was really Jerry West from Chelyan, West Virginia, set some Final Four records while wearing a Mountaineer uniform. About that same time, Ohio's own Jerry Lucas captained the Buckeyes to three Final Fours (including two championship game losses) and Indianapolis native Oscar Robertson won three player of the year awards while essentially playing in his backyard at the University of Cincinnati. Also, there was a guy named Wilt something who came from Philly and played for Kansas. The Big Dance had long relied on star power to capture the sporting public's attention (and dollars). But nothing was quite on the scale of Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird.

A lot has been said about their rivalry so there isn't much new to say here. What's important is that their one-sided tussle in the 1979 championship game set a record for TV ratings that still stands...30 years later. The reason so many people tuned in was, more or less, to witness the NCAA's first great Cinderella story. It's not obvious in the narrow view, but when you zoom out, you can see it come into focus. Bird's team, Indiana State, had not ever played in an NCAA Tournament game before he laced up his sneakers for the Sycamores. Going into the final game of his senior season, Bird's team was undefeated. Magic's team had won two straight Big 10 championships and had narrowly lost in the Elite 8 round of the previous year's NCAA Tournament to eventual champion Kentucky. The white guy wasn't a clear underdog, but the faint sketch of that narrative was beginning to color part of the tournament's mythology. With ratings like that, the NCAA clearly didn't mind working the potential of the storyline.

Before Magic took down Bird in Salt Lake City in 1979 in front of a national NBC audience, Texas Western beat up on Rupp's runts outside of Chocolate City in 1966 in front of a non-national, but highly volatile crowd. The racial mechanics of college basketball changed gradually and remarkably across those 13 years as the doors at major basketball-playing universities were being opened to all Black players and not just the Lew Alcindors. While players clearly and rightfully benefited, HBCUs that used to be able to field teams that were nearly on par with Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina, et al suffered from depleted pools of available (and interested) talent. This accompanied a general talent consolidation that would play out from the late 1970s through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Ironically, as integration began to gentrify the rosters of college basketball programs in the 1970s, the NCAA chose to draw harsher lines dividing its member institutions. Instead of just major universities and small colleges, the NCAA created Divisions I, II and III. After the NCAA tightened the criteria for what kind of institution could be eligible to compete in the Big Dance, it opened the tournament to more and more teams.

In the year that Michigan State broke Indiana State's hearts, the NCAA Tournament invited 40 teams. The next year, 48 teams competed for the national championship. The tournament grew a little bit more during each of the next three years: 52 teams in 1983, 53 teams in 1984 and 64 teams in 1985. You may remember those years as the ones that John Thompson's Georgetown teams booked three Final Four trips during Patrick Ewing's Hoya career. (You may also remember kids named Jordan, Isiah, Olajuwon, Worthy and Drexler all enjoying their shining moments.)

Thompson became the first Black head coach to win the NCAA Tournament and his iconoclastic teams--mostly Black players at a mostly White university--provided the first cultural apex after the racial integration of college basketball. Their story resonated with audiences that wouldn't have been highly regarded by broadcasters back then, but who did matter to the makers of sneakers and other apparel.

Sonny Vaccaro did two things to alter college basketball's business model. He started connecting individual basketball programs with the sneaker companies to a) provide the schools with free equipment and b) provide the coaches and institutions with supplementary income. Hoya Paranoia probably would have been number one in the hood without Sonny's help, but with it the Starter jackets and those navy on gray Nike Dunks claimed a very profitable place within consumer culture. The NCAA, as you might guess, liked that quite well.

Sonny also created a couple of showcases (The Dapper Dan Roundball Classic and the ABCD Camps) to connect high school kids with the college recruiters who needed talent to help their teams compete. They were meat markets kinda like how the NIT used to be, but they focused on an earlier segment of the supply chain. The culture of his showcases combined with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 to set in motion the full monetization of the pre-NCAA experience.

The Act stripped the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which predates the NCAA, of its governance role and shifted authority for setting rules regarding amateur competitions to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Before 1978, the AAU was primarily a tool to develop track stars. Not long after the Act passed, AAU basketball borrowed loosely from Sonny's model to slowly, but completely transform the development process for basketball players and pad the pockets of previously non-vested parties. In response, the NCAA padded its rule book with nebulous new standards that seemed meant to confuse the people who were playing Sonny Vaccaro's new game. To preserve the illusion that it was dedicated to protecting the integrity of amateurism, the NCAA waged mini-wars with folks like UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian. The organization was morphing into a labyrinthine monstrosity of rules that threatened to turn everyone--or at least the people who had professional basketball aspirations--into outlaws.

Throughout all of this, the cost for the tournament's TV rights jumped from $16 million for three years to $30 million to $55 million. CBS and ESPN swooped in to take over the duties of broadcasting the NCAA Tournament and danced awkwardly for a decade while expanding TV coverage of tournament games from just the final rounds to every game. Well, almost every game aired somewhere on TV at some point during those years. Most importantly, the question for broadcasters had shifted from "Where will our audience come from?" to "How do we give our audience everything they are thirsting for?"

What we saw clearly during this era was more teams with more potential star players participating in the tournament while the broadcasting infrastructure was maturing to more effectively amplify the madness. The story of the NCAA Tournament was being made more and more plain and the narrative options available to makers of hyperbole were synching neatly with the emerging business enterprise, which was beginning to re-divide college basketball into distinct amateur and semi-professional classes.

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How the Fab Five Gave Birth to LeBron James
When college students around the country matriculated to begin the fall semester of 1991, the business model for the NCAA Tournament had entered its final iteration. More than 30 at large teams were invited to quarrel with more than 30 conference champions over who was really the best team in the country each year. CBS had spent $143 million for the exclusive TV rights to broadcast all of its games for five years. Coaches at Division I programs had staked their positions within the marketplace and, like some of their legendary predecessors, had become institutions that could rival their employers for fame, power and wealth. In doing so, the most powerful coaches and the most famous programs monopolized the top talents creating a relatively narrow hegemony that also provided ample opportunities for limited Cinderella stories to emerge. The sneaker companies and apparel manufacturers were investing more and more money in the NCAA's great scheme and were getting richer and richer as a result. The question of compensation for Division I college basketball players lingered very quietly in the background, but little serious thought was given to significantly changing the scholarship structure that had existed since the 1950s. In short, times were good for the NCAA Tournament in 1991.

And then the world met Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson.

In the cultural genealogy of college basketball, the Georgetown Hoyas reluctantly begat the UNLV Runnin' Rebels who immediately begat the Fab Five. Those young men who wore maize and blue uniforms while being coached by Steve Fisher were one of the first generations of players to be empowered by the AAU showcase culture. This meant their play was perceived as being built less on fundamentals and more on athletic braggadocio. That perception led the five young men to be vilified by some and idolized by others. (It made for brilliant theater during two consecutive Marches where racial animus reared up in tandem with a cultural clash between generations of fans.) Their AAU experience also lead them to think of themselves more as potential businesses and less as noble competitors who should be grateful for their free educations. (To wit, one of the players is frequently cited as the most important recruiter in the Fab Five equation.) Consequently, they began to ask questions about the NCAA and it's beautiful money-making machine. The answers they arrived at settled the question of how "amateur" athletes should be compensated.

Chris Webber graduated to the NBA after two seasons. Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard followed him after three. They were not the first early entrants into the NBA's work force. Every young athlete owes Spencer Haywood a debt for blazing that path. What three-fifths of the Fab Five did was take the first step for LeBron James.

LeBron James is the most famous AAU alum who did not compete at track and field. As he aged toward eligibility for the NCAA or the NBA, the threshold for early entry shrank from the three-year bid Michael Jordan did at North Carolina to the two-year bid Chris Webber did in Ann Arbor to Kevin Garnett's leap straight from Farragut Academy to the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995. LeBron turned 11 that year. Like the Fab Five before him, Garnett was not the first to walk that path, he was merely one of the most important walkers of it. Some of Garnett's peers matured like he did to become the greatest NBA talents of their generation (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady). Other skippers of college barely sipped a cup of coffee in the business that's just a little bit bigger than the NCAA.

When four high school players were chosen within the first eight picks of the 2001 NBA draft, it appeared that young players had gained full control of their module of basketball choices. To that point, though, no single player had obtained immediate success in the NBA. The argument that great talents should develop first at the NCAA level still held. At least a little bit. When LeBron dropped 29 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 4 steals in his 2003 NBA debut (against Webber's Sacramento Kings), he gave agency to the NCAA's lone remaining non-vested cohort. LeBron's performance throughout his rookie season demonstrated that 18-year-old giants didn't have to wait for Luther Vandross to sing in order to enjoy their shining moment. This was not so good for the NCAA. Would every A-List college prospect cut a straight path to the league that would cut checks for them? What would the NCAA do without its great talents? Would the tournament flatten out and lose its sex appeal? Would casual fans still buy NCAA merchandise? How could it possibly justify a nine-figure broadcast deal for a game featuring a small school from Virginia and an even smaller school from Indiana?

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Two Can Win
In 2005, the NBA closed the door on high school players bypassing college by instituting a minimum age requirement. The age rule yielded a new phenomenon and a new story-line: the one-and-done players. These are the guys everyone knows are biding their time in the purgatory of college basketball while they age up to the NBA. They create some intrigue for fans, but generally take a back seat to the NCAA's newest favorite hyperbolic tactic: bracketology.

Thanks to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the bulk of the conversation about college basketball focuses on who should get into the tournament and where they should be seeded. It's a months-long obsession with the middle that mirrors the national dialogue about college football. The emphasis is on resumes and who deserves what. The games themselves are a co-star (or even a supporting actor) in these debates. The end result is that everyone has access to similarly deep reservoirs of data about the teams that do make the tournament so anyone can feel like an expert when the brackets are finally revealed on the second Sunday of March. Which is why 3 people out of 300 million picked this year's Final Four correctly.

Speaking of this year's Final Four, let's tease out the stories of each of this year's semi-finalists:

Connecticut: Best player. Best team. Best conference. One of their school colors is blue and they have the pedigree to go along with it. Jim Calhoun has coached the program to two NCAA championships and one NIT championship. He has sent 26 players to the NBA. In February, Calhoun was cited by the NCAA for failing to create an atmosphere of compliance. That might mean he got in trouble for something. No one is entirely sure. He is coaching in his fourth Final Four.

Kentucky: Winningest program in the history of college basketball. (By at least two metrics.) The bluest of any Blue Blood basketball school. Ever. They play seven guys. Half of them are freshmen. Odds are strongly against any of the freshmen becoming sophomores. Last year, five Kentucky players were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. The Wildcats are the third team coach John Calipari has taken to the NCAA Final Four. This could finally be the year he gets a championship vacated--as his previous trips to the Final Four were. Oddly, Calipari has never been sanctioned by the NCAA.

Butler: Last year's national runner-up. Also, last year's Cinderella team. Their home gym is the place where Jimmy Chitwood clinched the state title for Hickory High. Head coach Brad Stevens joined the Butler staff as a volunteer after leaving a job at Eli Lilly. The best player from last year's squad left school early to play in the NBA. His teammates are playing in their second consecutive Final Four.

Virginia Commonwealth: This year's Cinderella. Had to win a play-in game to qualify for the field of 64. Has beaten a team from each of the following conferences: Pac-10, Big East, Big 10, ACC and Big 12. Their coach, Shaka Smart, has one of the coolest names in America. This is his second season as a head coach at any school. He is coaching in his first Final Four.

This is the first year of play since the NCAA decided to expand to 68 teams--a clever stroke that deepened the conversation about seedings and who should be invited to compete. That means Virginia Commonwealth has already skewed history's grading curve. The Rams are an obvious tournament darling and could be cast as the greatest giant-killers of all time if they were to cut down the nets on Monday night.

If Kentucky's kids were to climb the ladders after Monday's game, they would deliver the eighth NCAA championship to their fans in Lexington (end everywhere else). It would be a return to glory for a program with a mostly glorious tradition. (As long as we don't count their late acceptance of Black players and those seasons they were placed on probation in the '50s and the '80s.)

A Connecticut championship could be seen as a vindication of Jim Calhoun in his recent battles against the NCAA Rules Committee. Or maybe it would be an exclamation point on the Year of Kemba. Either way, the drama associated with the Huskies is thick enough to satisfy the hyperbolic standards of the NCAA Tournament.

And that leaves Butler, arguably the most compelling team remaining. We can assume that the scrappy, jump-shooting, backdoor-cutting collection of student-athletes is precisely the kind of kids so many people are referring to when they assert that the NCAA is WAAAAAAY better than the NBA. ( is not.) The Bulldogs are certainly the Whitest of the four semi-finalists. That could be a completely meaningless fact. It could also explain the subliminal attraction of some White fans to this particular underdog. Setting race aside, the Butler story is obviously one of unfinished business as they lost last year's final when a buzzer-beating half-court heave was a half inch off. From a purely story standpoint, one has to wonder if there is a touch of destiny about this team given the number of bounces that have fallen in their favor this year. Maybe the fates really do want to make up for that loss to Duke.

The more we contemplate the possibilities for this year's Final Four, the more it becomes obvious how the overarching narrative concerns the stratification of college basketball. The two games that will tip on Saturday articulate that divide. On one side are the teams that are feeder programs for the NBA. Their players may not all be one-and-done, but the primary purpose for signing with a Kentucky or a Connecticut is to improve your prospects of collecting a paycheck from a professional league. For these programs, course work is an obligation. Like lifting weights and eating breakfast. Education is not a reward or a pathway. The athletes from these programs who earn their degrees are anomalies. And if the graduates never see a paycheck from a professional league, you may even call them aberrations. The coaches at these programs are millionaires. A couple times over. Their names are filtered through the NCAA hype machine to sustain the madness even as their professional integrity is called into question again and again. The rules makers themselves are too rich to care whether or not they've abdicated their responsibilities as enforcers. The appearance of authority is a valid stand-in when its time to write the scripts that make the money.

On the other side, as ever, are the genuine student-athletes. The kids who pull on Butler or VCU jerseys make the NCAA's great fiction of amateurism possible. They're not breathtaking physical specimens. They look like the eager intern you'd task with completing a stack of TPS Reports. Maybe a couple of them will earn their livings from basketball. Maybe they'll even play professionally. They probably won't leave campus after two semesters. (Unless Google wants to hire them.) Their coaches are not millionaires. Not yet. And they haven't been accused of rules violations. That we know of. It may be entirely too cynical to assume the inevitability of the worst for this class of basketball programs. And it may be unfair to all of the people who represent those programs. It isn't unreasonable, though, to wonder what is under Cinderella's dress.

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After the Dance
In order for hyperbole to be an effective marketing tool, there has to be a kernel of truth driving its declarations. In the last decade, the NCAA Tournament has delivered some legitimately captivating stories. We can bullet point a few of them to stir up fond (or not-so-fond) memories:

* The Flintstone Kids: Michigan State (2000)
* Duke Doing What Duke Does (2001 and 2010)
* The Orange Hero: Carmelo Anthony's triumphant march (2003)
* The Quest for Perfection: Illinois (2005)
* The Carolina Homecoming for Roy Williams (2005)
* The Green and Yellow Cinderella: George Mason (2006)
* The Pony-Tailed Villain: Joakim Noah (2006 and 2007)
* The Overlooked Son of a Former NBA Player: Steph Curry's scoring binge (2008)
* The Shot: Mario Chalmers for Kansas (2008)
* The Black and White Cinderella: Butler (2010)

The dance really is big. The madness really is beautiful. And the spectacle really is spectacular. We don't just believe these things, we know them to be true. We also know that the world of college basketball is flat. Any Division I school really can win this thing. Regardless of which class of players they conscript to suit up for them. That is the greatest NCAA fiction of all because it is, in fact, no longer a fiction.

So what will we remember from the 2011 NCAA Tournament? We'll definitely remember this final foursome in some form. We'll probably remember Jimmer. Kemba will make sure we remember him, too. We may remember Duke's inexplicable flameout. We may remember the return of Steve Fisher. We might remember the first experiences we had jumping from network to network trying to decide which game to watch as the playing field isn't the only thing that has flattened. Indeed, college basketball fans now have as much authorship over the story of the NCAA tournament as does the rules-making organization itself. (Do we even care about the stark line separating the two classes of competitors?)

College basketball may have arrived at yet another identity-defining tipping point, but its business is hardly in crisis. This Final Four, like the dozen or so that preceded it, will sell out a football stadium and will attract millions and millions of TV viewers. With the current NCAA President indicating that he is open to a discussion regarding a rethink of compensation for Division I basketball players, the institution may even be looking honestly at its reflected image. Maybe. "Open to discussion" is hardly a synonym for "taking action to correct." We can hope, though. When we run out of hope that reason will prevail, we will have the hype. We will always have the hype.

After the 2011 NCAA Championship Game mercifully ended, two men representing the NCAA congratulated Jim Calhoun and the Connecticut Huskies for defeating the Butler Bulldogs. The men also congratulated the city of Houston, all of this year's tournament teams and the fans who tuned in from around the world. At no point did they acknowledge the atrocity that had just been committed on that court. At the end of this year's March Madness rainbow was an empty, rusted out kettle. The gold had been left somewhere on the other side of the Sweet 16. And the only charm to be found anywhere in the building was Clark Kellog's earnest stream of wordplay.

Kemba Walker and his teammates wrapped their torsos in t-shirts that had been emblazoned with several characters. The three largest read: "No 1." The design could have been interpreted as "number one" or "no one was better" or some other piece of braggadicio. The subtext of the shirt implied that the ranking was the mark of the champion and not, like, the act of vanquishing all of one's opponents. It drew a line back to the endless conversations about the NCAA's method of choosing who is the best Division I football team. When paired with the recent "We Put Our Money Where Our Mission Is" PSA, the great takeaway from this year's Dance appears to be: the NCAA will control the parts of the story it wants to control and it will leave the rest to the beholder(s). Maybe any thinking about how "student-athletes" have drifted into two separate but equal classes is just a silly writer's exercise. The NCAA's core purpose, like any other business, is to simply stay in business. And when story is your currency, your doors will probably never close.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cheering for a Champion: One Laker Fan's Lament

No one cries for a champion. At best, winners receive a begrudging kind of respect. At worst, winners are the targets of pitched jealousy. Both are earned. Neither really matters. The champion is the champion. There is no need for any further validation.

When your favorite team wins a championship, it is common to feel a beautiful combination of joy and relief. All of those nights you cursed at your TV were worth it. All of those mock drafts and fake trades you generated had meaning. And every piece of shit you talked with opposing wasn't just shit-talking, now was it?

In the event that your team wins a second or third or fifth title, your vantage point as a fan evolves. No longer are you the desperate observer. Instead, you may find yourself wallowing in the sustained brilliance of your team's play. As you wallow, you'll behave arrogantly. This is inevitable. If you're any kind of smart, you'll move away from the arrogant sense of entitlement that can seize the average winner. And you'll recognize that you occupy a privileged observational space.

Most people are quick to acknowledge that history is being made, but how many can say they followed it from the precise point in time the moment was conceived? While cheering for a dynasty, you're not just watching history happen, you're in the middle of it repeating itself over and over again. It's hard to explain to someone who is ambivalent about sport--let alone a fan whose team has never won a title. You may as well tell someone you were an engineer when Herbie Hancock used to play with Miles Davis. Or when Jay Dilla recorded with...anyone.

What you may lose sight of--either because you're consumed by the long tail of your team's brilliance or because you're reluctant to accept that it won't trail forever--is that every conception eventually yields to a completion. If it began, it must end. When a season ends with your team raising their sport's most coveted trophy, the ending itself is the source of desire. That's what you wanted and that's what you got. It is the epitome of satisfaction.

But after you've tasted that same kind of satisfaction for the fifth time, it's not quite so...satisfying. Relief overtakes joy leaving that feeling you felt way back when your team claimed its first championship to be grossly imbalanced. And you're probably gonna wonder why that is.

Truth be told, when you're cheering on a transcendent player (or group of players) you'll reach a very distinct point at which you must accept that their transcendence may endure in the videos and t-shirts and headlines they leave behind. But it cannot continue on the court (or the field) forever. And you never know which championship will be the last one. To be frank, that feeling kinda sucks and it is your unique burden. No fan of any other team will weep for you. To be frank again, you can't even really talk about it as the conversation will only elicit a sense of relief in other fans that your team's obnoxious stranglehold could soon be coming to an end. And that is not the kind of relief any fan of a champion several times over wants to contemplate.

So where does that leave you?

As a fan, your options are limited. You can rage against the dying of your team's light by advocating for trades to concede the current season in favor of stockpiling for a more serious run at next year's title. But what if there is no next year? And what if the trade that looks good today is oh so wrong in the long run? You can run a bunch of numbers to generate extremely likely probabilities, but you can't know exactly what will happen until it actually happens. can watch the games and take the journey. Again. Just like it was the first time. The desperation is there. But it is very different. The desperation of a champion is not at all like the desperation of a challenger. The challenger, as you'll recall, needs to know what winning feels like. The champion, as you now know, worries that the era of his dominance may never come again.

It is not, in fact, much of a choice at all. Fortunately, your favorite team continues to compete. And there is a championship--somewhere out there ahead of the regular season slog--to be won.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Final Psychoanalysis of LeBron James

One week after LeBron James announced his intention to leave his home state of Ohio to sign a free-agent contract with the NBA's Miami Heat, the one finality we can be certain of is that the walking, talking triple double will never again earn his living in Cleveland. All the rest, it seems, continues to settle.

 [Photo via]

With the two best players of their generation--who double as top 20 (10?) talents in the history of the game--and an All-Star Stretch Four in the same starting lineup, professional basketball's elite now resides in Miami. Except, of course, for the fact that it doesn't. The Los Angeles Lakers are reigning two-time champions fresh from their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. Superman still wears an Orlando Magic cape. And the Boston Celtics, no matter how many Philadelphians may wish otherwise, are not dead. Not yet anyway. (Lurking elsewhere around the periphery are Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Mark Cuban and eager franchises in Utah, Houston and Chicago.)

While the new truth may not be all the way true yet, there stand Dwayne Wade and LeBron James--with Chris Bosh clinging proudly to them as if to form the tallest boy band the world has ever seen. Clearly, three young, Black men have taken control of their own destinies simply because they have excelled at what they do. All three also possessed the business savvy to dictate the terms of their employment at the moment their services were in the highest demand. Before these men are anything else, they are capitalists. True blue (or perhaps Heat red) Americans. And they have likely launched a paradigm shift in professional sports--certainly in the NBA--such that players alone would become the ultimate arbiters of the viability of the business.

At the core of this story are two of those Americans: Wade and James. James and Wade. The most absurd and most terrifying one-two punch of current NBA players an opposing coach could dream of. It is there, in that dream, where the presumed greatness begins. As soon as the upcoming NBA season concludes, the Larry O'Brien trophy will wake up in South Florida. Where it is expected to make its permanent home. So we are told.

Along the way to the inevitable(?!?) coronation, there is a subtext in LeBron James' choice to migrate to South Beach that may undermine a cherished human institution. At the very least, his decision countervails certain situational failings of that institution.

During the week that has passed, James' decision has been dissected repeatedly by writers, podcasters, talk show callers, serious fans, casual fans and drunkards killing time on worn-out bar stools. All of them--and many more--have decided that the story of the contract signing heard 'round the world is about:
  • A) one self-absorbed brat-athlete taking his ball and choosing the path to greatness which offers the least possible resistance
  • B) one clever brand manager creating the stormiest opportunity for his brand to exploit the world's stage in a premeditated (and superfluous) quest for redemption
  • C) one mind-boggling experiment in the convergence of sport, celebrity, media, appetite and finance
  • D) all of the above
  • E) and so much more
The image of the three brand new teammates contains a not-so-subtle tell which reveals one significant component of the so much more that LeBron James' decision is about:

Brotherhood is equal to or greater than fatherhood.

We know that Wade and Bosh both had relationships with their biological fathers. Their relationships may have been like the age-old bonds sons typically share with their fathers. There is little evidence to suggest otherwise. And there is reason to believe classic parental norms informed their childhoods. James, on the other hand, was different from them. He, as various wikis tell us, was raised by a single, teenage mother. Her aptitude for parenting has rarely been called into question. Similarly, she has rarely been mistaken for an actual father. Women, no matter how butch, can't completely fulfill that role for their sons. Something invariably lacks. A boy can mature to become a man with none but his mother to guide him. But can he really know how to be a man with only her guidance? It's a question that generations of young men have wrestled with since the implosion of the nuclear family some decades ago. I submit that in LeBron James' decision to sign a free agent contract with the Miami Heat we have the potential for a definitive answer.

If an athlete of such prodigious gifts as LeBron James chooses to eschew the quest to become his own man of trophies in favor of a collaborative journey to basketball greatness alongside one of the few human beings on earth who stands as his sporting peer, how much sense does it make for any other fatherless man in any other situation to insist that he carve himself completely out of his own image? If there is no father to help a boy become a man, what is really wrong with the boy gathering with his brother(s) to decide together what will constitute manhood?

By no means does James' decision render fatherhood irrelevant. Instead, it provides an alternate model for defining manhood. Choosing to seek his own legacy in concert with Wade means James does not have to fumble alone like the fatherless child he found himself to be as a Cleveland Cavalier. The pairing provides an immediate beta standard to grow in tandem with and reduces the burden associated with the the individual pursuit of athletic glory. The reward for that risk could very well be an extended basketball transcendence we have not seen since Red Auerbach and Bill Russell bullied the NBA during the middle of the previous century.

Much has changed since that Celtic Dynasty dutifully accumulated championship banners to be hung in the Boston Garden. American social mores have wilted to accept (or at least acknowledge) that the structure of a family need not be limited to husband + wife + children. The mores have had no choice. Divorce has broken too many of those equations. Wars (both foreign and domestic) have subtracted one parent or the other (mostly the fathers). And wife + wife or husband + husband has proven the equal of any other structure.

Children, of course, are also possessed by a natural desire to act as their own bosses. That LeBron James, regardless of how much love or respect he may have for his mother, would elect to try to build a basketball dynasty with his brother(s) seems, in hindsight, to be quite inevitable. We may not know any more about the man who exists in addition to the athlete than James permits us to know of him. But his basketball decision is quite revelatory. On paper, the brotherhood model appears to be a fitting surrogate for the fatherhood model. And, with obligatory apologies to Pat Riley, it could replace it altogether.

In the event that it does, the legacy of LeBron James may ultimately be measured, not in championship rings, but in the cultural shift to accept as virtue the practice of a man creating himself with the help of his brothers. In the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, celebrating the collaborative construction of masculine identity is something of a long shot. One that may be outside of even Mike Miller's considerable range.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Drifting on a Memory

No one has ever accused me of patriotism.

At best, I am fascinated by "the Grand Experiment" for all of its spectacular aspirations and the mass delusions that result from its failings. At worst, I have been told that I should probably find a new government to render taxes to. I've never pretended to be Hulk Hogan. But I could hardly be called John Walker Lindh either. I think I'm like a lot of people in my peer group: I'm fatigued by the gross simplicity of what I am told America is supposed to be, yet I remain intrigued by the vast potential of it all. Which assumes, of course, that all has not been squandered already.

(It hasn't. Not yet. Although it's closer to half empty than it is to half full.)

Before Memorial Day in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, I had never literally celebrated or even really honored Memorial Day. I had always done some combination of the drinks and BBQs and movies and families and drinks and friends and shopping and parties and drinks thing. But never any actual memorializing. After running through HBO's The Pacific earlier this month, I decided the least I could do this year was to visit the National Mall. Out of curiosity as much as for any sense of paying tribute.

I arrived late on Monday afternoon as the setting sun had finally decided to release all the tourists and other visitors from its crushingly hot grasp. The space between the monuments to Presidents Washington and Lincoln was predictably littered with people. Visitors from countries in Europe and Asia. Bored pre-teens being ushered by social studies teachers. Joggers and bicyclists. And, of, course, a few remnants of Rolling Thunder.

If you've never been in or around the Washington, DC area on Memorial Day Weekend, you may not know what Rolling Thunder is. The short answer is that it's a much more somber, focused version of Sturgis. Hundreds of Harleys rumble through our nation's capital every Memorial Day Weekend so their riders can pour out a little liquor for their fallen comrades. I don't think Rolling Thunder is comprised exclusively of veterans, but hella former service people on super fat hogs set up camp throughout the Potomac region waving American flags and celebrating the memories of those who never made it home. It's the kind of thing you need to see with your own ears.

Another thing you need to see with your own ears is the WWII Monument. There's a massive fountain at the center of it which envelops all other sounds. It mimics the two oceans that young Americans had to cross in order to help save the world from the ambitions of Hitler (the racist), Mussolini (the fascist) and Emperor Shōwa (the opportunist). I started my Memorial Day jaunt at that fountain. It was not my first visit. I shuffled between freshly placed flowers and notes declaring "We Will Never Forget". Bravery, courage and service rated as the most memorable acts accounted for by the amalgalm of papers and roses and other detritus spread thoughtfully around that monument. I couldn't tell whether obligation or sincerity hung more heavily in the air. Maybe both mixed together inextricably.

After taking a few photos of the Pacific and Atlantic portions of the monument, I crept along the Reflection Pool toward the great statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln. I heard music. A youth choir from a church in Oklahoma City had set up shop at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. They sang songs about Jesus and America and they played instruments made of cleaning supplies. They weren't playing for any reason other than they could. The show -- like all the others on their 15-day tour of the Eastern Seaboard -- had been self-funded.

I left the singers to sing and bounded toward the Korean War Memorial as the pretty blue sky showed its first signs of turning into night. I wanted to snap a few photos before I lost all of the day's natural light. Ahead of me was a man who looked just like Ben Stein. Who was, in fact, Ben Stein. I had a quick thought to ask him for a photo or shake his hand or something before my Los Angeles self piped up. You don't bother celebrities when they're out in public. For any reason. Unless, maybe, you're asking them whether they're keeping that parking spot or not. So I left Mr. Stein alone in order that both of us could soak up the monument to the brave SOBs who fought and/or died during the course of the Korean War. I don't know much about that war. I guess I'm still waiting for HBO to tell me how it turned out. Although, my spidey sense says that Hyundai and Samsung were probably on the winning side.

Individually -- or together -- the various memorials and monuments on the National Mall are pretty impressive pieces of work. Each clearly strives to evoke something. But that effort, when made thousands of times every day, seems to go just a bit dull. Where the war monuments are concerned, you kinda get the point pretty quickly. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a buncha dudes died in some great conflict between the Stars and Stripes and the awful flag of some other country that was (or stood in for) the enemy of Democracy. It sucks that they had to give their lives. But they gave their all for a good cause...right?

I suppose that hope is supposed to be born out of the shared mourning that happens every day on the National Mall. I suppose that patriotism is what forms around that hope. I suppose that patriotism ought to be an external exercise born of an unwavering internal commitment. I fumbled through a lot of different thoughts as I exited the Korean War Memorial. Not the least of which was, "What would I have to do win whatever money was in Ben Stein's pocket?"

My journey, as I had planned it, ended at the Vietnam Wall. It's a brilliant monument that tapers gradually to deposit you into 12 feet of names etched into reflective black granite. For even the most unsentimental, the design has a raw power to it that is difficult to deny. I'm not in the habit of denying, but I'm not much on sentiment either. Not usually.

When I arrived precisely at the midpoint of the Wall, I snapped a couple shots to try and capture the scale of that portion of the monument. I paused to read through a few names and admire the designed experience. Reflecting back at me, a young kid outfitted in Army's dress greens had stopped on the granite panel immediately to the right of mine. He leaned in to get a closer read. Stepped back. Saluted. Dropped his right arm. Extended his right index and middle fingers to touch a certain spot on The Wall. He whispered, "Thanks, man." Then disappeared behind me.

That scene may have taken 90 seconds to play out. Maybe less. I watched it all via the reflection in the granite. I wanted to take a picture of it. I wanted to shake the kid's hand. I wanted to do anything but stand frozen. And I certainly didn't want to feel sweat (tears?) streaming down my cheeks.

But that shit stopped me cold, man.

Somewhere behind all of the politics that goes into separating history from what actually happened are the people to whom the history happened. Some of them made choices. Some merely succumbed to circumstance. They're all a part of the story, though. The dates and titles of the things that happened don't get scribbled down without the actors being present for them. Some of those actors did not survive the thing itself. After we squeeze the thing into a larger narrative, the actors can be overlooked or their roles can be minimized as the grand scale weighs the collective impact of the thing. That tendency is neither bad nor good. It's an inevitable consequence of trying to keep our own TV show on the air.

Every once in a while -- sometimes on days marked for official observance -- the echoes from the actors who tragically departed stir. Sometimes, they speak to us via the people who couldn't forget. And sometimes, they make themselves known to people who wouldn't ordinarily be bothered to remember.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lessons from Watching HBO's The Pacific

I was busy doing...something else...when HBO premiered The Pacific earlier this spring. So I skipped the series altogether thinking I'd watch it On Demand after every episode was made available.

This weekend, I finally found time to run that marathon. Here are 10 lessons I picked up from watching all 10+ hours of The Pacific:

1) In real war, as opposed to movie wars, anyone can get wounded -- or killed -- at any time.

2) When you're low on troops, you pick the targets with the smallest square milages 'cause they possess less space to capture/hold.

3) After you do capture a hunk of land, there's no guarantee the people who ordered you to capture it are gonna use it for any reason other than planting a flag in it.

4) Australian girls were easy back then. And hella cute, too.

5) People can be turned off -- and on -- by patriotism for exactly the same reason Patton cited as the objective of war: You're not supposed to die for your country, you're supposed to make the other poor bastard die for his.

6) War smells awful. Maybe more awful than any combination of the awful-est smells your nostrils have ever been revolted by.

7) If you were a Marine in the early '40s, you never said "Hoo-Rah!" "Ooo-Rah!" or any derivation thereof. That musta come later.

8) The safest feeling any warrior can entertain is numbness. It can also be the most awkward feeling to manage.

9) No matter what war you're fighting in -- at any point in any place for any side -- there are always three enemies: the person who is trying to kill you; the physical environment in which combat takes place; and the inside of your own head.

10) For those who were tasked with fighting it, the war is never really over.

There are probably more lessons to take from a less intensely-sequenced viewing of the series. There is probably also one single lesson you can distill all of these things -- and all of the hours that went into producing or watching The Pacific -- down to:

White people will never tire of making movies about World War II.