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.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A lot of things have changed. A lot of things have not.

Back when I used to scramble onto long, yellow buses bound for museums or other excuses for giving kids a vacation from the classroom, the best seat on the bus was always the last one. That's where you were farthest away from the teacher. And that's where you had the clearest view of the world racing alongside you. Or behind you.

Just about every kid's favorite pasttime involved one of two arm motions. The wave. And the tug. The wave was the big hello to every other driver and passenger on the road. You wanted all of them -- or any of them -- to wave back. When they did, you celebrated with the predetermined assurance of a Yankees fan. Then you turned and flapped your arm vigorously at the next approaching car.

The tug was the desperate plea to the truckers who sat as high as you did. You wanted any of them -- or all of them -- to make their horns blow a big, nasally gust of air in your direction. When one of them finally did, you celebrated with the ecstatic relief of a Cubs fan. You danced in your seat. You giggled with the kids sitting near you. Then you searched for another vehicle to beckon.

At least, that was the scene when I was million years ago. Before iPhones. Before Tivo. Before Google. When Tupac was still alive. When Ronald and Nancy Reagan were wreaking havoc in the White House.

This morning, as I exited the parkway just outside of Washington, DC while travelling to my dayjob, a bus sped past me. It carried a bunch of kids in the direction of the Air and Space Museum. Half of them were waving. The other half were tugging.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Greatest Rapper of All Time Died on March 9th

The greatest rapper of all time died on March 9th. His name was...

...Charles Bukowski?


Hank did die on the ninth of March. Back in 1994. Three years before Christopher Wallace was killed.

I wrote a lil something about Bukowski. You can find it right here:

(P.S. I'm contributing over there now. Random stuff about movies. Will still raise a leg on this site every now and again. In case you're interested in either.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Red got some bad news this week. So did the Liberian Girl.

(If you're new here, the former is my little sister. More or less. The latter lets me wake up at her house a few mornings each week.)

The news each got represented a pretty big professional setback. The kind of setback where you're staring across a great big gully at the other side of a road that is, all of a sudden, no longer beneath you.

You know how that feels, don't you? It feels like your whole life is ruined.

You could be relieved of your job. Your girl could leave you. You could smash up your car. Your college could suddenly find another big pile of debt for you to pay down. You could lose all your vinyl in a fire. Or a flood.

Whatever the cause of your ruin, there's a cliche for how you can handle it. The one about lemons and lemonade. Or that other one about taking a hit versus how hard you can hit. Or, in the parlance of our times, those three letters that signal your disgust with it all: FML.

There's something kinda stunning about the imagery of a person surrounded by the debris of one day's catastrophe. I think it's the holyfuckness of the moment.

Like, "Holy fuck, I'm still alive?"

Followed by, "Holy fuck, did that really just happen?"

Which eventually leads to, "Holy fuck, what do I do next?"

Amid the ruins there always is a next. Which is kinda the point of life. It goes on. Until it no longer has to. And when it no longer has to, there's no next for you to be worried about. And there's certainly no ruins to follow you. At least not as far as this silly bastard knows about.

So, as I said to Red, get used to it. Your whole life is gonna be ruined a bunch of times while you still have it. Dozens. Probably hundreds. And it'll be ruined more frequently the older you get.

But every time it is, you'll get to figure out what to do next.

"Holy fuck" is right. Maybe the only right way to understand the ruined.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Date Night: Avatar

An hour after word first began circulating that Kobe Bryant may end his two-week injurcation to suit up for the Lakers-Grizzlies game, I received this text message:

"I would like to have date night on Tues."

The Liberian Girl who sent that text had no knowledge of the status of Kobe's health on Monday, but she does know where the Lakers rank on my Priority List. She also knows where she rates on that same list.

On Tuesday night, as Andrew Bynum--also recently mended--jumped center in Memphis, I slid a pair of 3D glasses up the bridge of my nose in anticipation of my second screening of Avatar. The Liberian Girl burrowed into my left rib and nibbled on Nerds. She hadn't seen the film yet and finally caved to all the buzz about it. (After we ate a proper dinner first, of course.)

At this point, what more can you really say about Avatar?

The mythology of the film has been shredded, diced and gnarled by critics from all sides. "Why does the white man gotta save the natives again?" "Why is capitalism always the villain?" "How did we survive three hours without a single nipple slip?"

(Whoops. That last one is more pornographic than political. But those two disciplines share so many things that who can really tell the difference?)

The story--and this won't spoil anything if you've not seen it yet--is underwhelming. The characters are reduced, ironically, to flat caricatures. The dialogue is the height of cliche. There is more than one nagging continuity question. And, most alarmingly, there's no actual nudity despite the fact that those lithe blue bodies dance through the jungle for 2/3 of the flick.

All of which is to be expected.

Avatar is nearly three hours long, but it MOVES. It jukes through a brilliantly imagined world. And it sprints through a simple narrative that isn't meant to do anything more than provide back-up for a massive, MASSIVE creative accomplishment.

There are so many teams of people who collaborated on that film that you need a second mouse to scroll through the whole cast and crew list on If you know anything about the process of trying to make a film, the more people who get involved, the more likely it is that something about the finished product could suck. Long chains do tend to have lots of slack.

So if you're spending eight kajillion dollars to invent a whole new way of making movies, something has to give, no? If you're going to get anything really, really right, then you need to conjure up all the genius your acres of collaborators can muster to make sure the world you create together is jaw-dropping. Anything else--like the story--should probably be executed as simply as possible. That compromise, regardless of what non-lethal stereotypes it furthers or what agendas it hamhandedly espouses, can ultimately be forgiven.

Upon exiting the theatre, the Liberian Girl evaluated the film with a fitting eloquence, "The story wasn't amazing, but everything else was."

That's just about as precise as Kobe was during the closing seconds in Memphis.

(So I was told by a very different text.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Online Retail Fail

Gil Scott-Heron released a new album last Tuesday.

That's an ALL-CAPS headline deserving of thoughtful, probing analysis. But I ain't hear the album yet. Got sidetracked by life. Although I did mark a very big star next to that item in this week's To Do List. (Translation: "You really need to tick this one off cause it's extra, extra important.")

On Monday afternoon of this week, Barnes & Noble (B&N) was kind enough to alert me to a big sale they're having. $8.99 for any single CD. Perfect. I was gonna buy the Gil album anyway and here was a nice price break to validate my neglect in being among the first to cop it.

This morning, I opened the email from B&N to begin making the Gil purchase. I've never ordered from them online so I had to fill in some standard shipping and billing info during the first phase of the checkout process. No biggie. After securing all of my information, B&N informed me that the brand-new, just-released Gil CD is usually available within 1-2 weeks and that I could choose an ultra-cheap shipping option ($2.98 to receive my order in 3 days or less) bringing the total for my order to: $12.57 (including tax). Suddenly, this didn't seem like such a good deal.

I opened a new tab and clicked over to Amazon. I've ordered from them several times before. Probably more than several. Many more. The Gil CD was in stock both new ($12.99) and used ($11-something). Amazon offered me the same fast click checkout option they offer all regular customers and promptly informed me that I could receive the Gil CD by this Thursday (less than 48 hours from now) for a total of $12.99 (free shipping, no tax). That sounded pretty cool.

If you're scoring at home, here's how the retail fail breaks down:

Barnes & Noble = $12.57 to wait as long as two weeks to receive a CD that was released last week
Amazon = $12.99 to get the same CD within the next day or two

I ordered from Amazon.

Thanks for the coupon, B&N. I put it to very good use. For your competition.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Secret to Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is a terribly misunderstood holiday.

It's not really about flowers. Or chocolates. Or chocolate-covered flowers.

It's not some grand conspiracy intended to make single people feel embarassed about being single.

And it's not a dull obligation masquearding as an icon of passion.

Valentine's Day is actually a referendum that has little to do with how either party of a relationship feels about the other. Instead, it's about how people who are not the couple perceive the couple's relationship. Valentine's Day is a show and it has lots of judges.

Let's say you're a dude who likes a chick. Let's say this chick digs on you as well. As the calendar flips from January to February, you find yourself brainstorming for the best way to pay tribute to all the liking and the digging.

You're probably thinking that the chick is your audience, but she's not. Your real audience is the chick's friends. Maybe her family, too. Possibly even her acquaintences.

After February 14 ends, people will ask the chick how the two of y'all celebrated Valentine's Day. If you chose well, there will be some giggling and some cooing before the conversation trundles happily to another subject. If you chose poorly, there will be awkward sighs, reassuring pats on the shoudler and, hopefully, an abrupt end to the dicussion of Valentine's Day. If the conversation lingers harshly on your poor choice of a celebration, the judging could condemn your relationship. All because you bought the wrong chocolate-covered flowers.

You don't have to be a dude in order to fail at Valentine's Day. You don't have to be straight either. This kind of judging isn't exactly partial to any specific pairing of the sexes. But it is the driving force behind the holiday.

And now that you know that...what does that mean to you?

It's pretty simple, actually. You could retire from Valentine's Day like all of those smart people who stopped going to church every Sunday. You could spend some time prying into the minds of your S.O.'s friends and family to find out what won't offend their sensibilities. could talk to your ______ (whomever you wake up next to) and reach an understanding that certain things matter to both of y'all and certain things don't. Valentine's Day could really be one of the things that matters to one party or another. (Probably because one of y'all really, really enjoys chocolate-covered flowers.)

Once you both reach an understanding, then you can focus not only on who really matters, but on what it is that matters to them as well.

And you can disregard everything--and everyone--else. 'Cause what doesn't matter...doesn't matter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Have Failed as a Laker Fan

Last night, I broke my three-year drought of attending NBA games. During that span, I've watched hundreds of NBA games on TV, online or at a bar. And when I say hundreds...I mean that there simply were not thousands of games played for me to watch. Consquently, I'm a lightweight NBA junkie. A very, very, very poor man's Kelly Dwyer if you will. Which, in junkie terms, means that I've taken a couple of hits while Kelly has been high for 15 years straight. But I digress. I'm a junkie who watches, but who has been completely absent from NBA games.

Last night, the homie Dae and I boarded 14 different escalators before climbing the final peak of the Verizon Center to fill two seats in section 431 seconds before the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers tipped off versus the utterly mediocre Washington Wizards. Seconds after Andrew Bynum won the tip for the champs I realized something: the NBA game is really quick.

Yeah, you get that when you watch on TV. But it's different when it's live. Maybe it's different when it's live and you're more than a free throw lane away from the court. But it's definitely different. And it's definitely much, much quicker than a person may be prepared for. That is not the point of this post, though. I do, after all, need to explain its title. Which we will get to. Eventually.

The hapless Wizards played with great hap during the first 18 minutes of the game. They held a lead for the bulk of the first quarter and remained very competitive even after they had given it up. Late in the second quarter, ShanWOW got loose. Three times. One of which was a backdoor lob play I've seen the Lakers run a few dozen times. Apparently, they don't get that YouTube channel in our nation's capital because no one wearing a Wizards jersey saw the Top 10 Plays nominee coming. Apart from that oop, the Lakers offense still looked very kinky for much of the first half, but they did start spitpolishing their own offensive glass. And Wizards players began mistaking Lakers for their teammates. In seven shot clocks or less, all of the haps were sucked out of the franchise that Abe Pollin built. With a 16-point halftime lead, I started thinking of tacos. And I got pretty excited about that.

From my perch, I noticed a few things about the NBA game experience. Firstly, there is a whole lot more audience participation now than the Verizon Center played host to three years ago. Most of it is egregiously sponsored. And much of it seems to come at the expense of the poledancers who may otherwise be known as cheerleaders.

The cheerleaders...or dance team...or whatever the half-nekked hot chicks should be called are still part of the game experience. They're just not very pronounced anymore. Instead, during breaks in games there are tried and true gimmicks like the Kiss Cam and and the Chipotle burrito launch. There was also dancing performed by the Beat Ya Feet Kings, which is a group of young dudes from DC who kinda sorta spaz out while go-go music envelops the inside of the arena like it tends to do outside the arena on 7th Ave. The cheeleaders, meanwhile, pommed their poms in a quiet gray space tucked in to one corner of the arena. Or, on occasion, in one of the stairwells in the lower bowl.

There was also something called "This or That," sponsored by Sprite and scored by Black Sheep's clever licensing company. In last night's episode, Caron Butler recorded a series of answers to very simply framed questions aimed at identifying his personal preferences. Two brief phrases would smash wipe onto the screen of the jumbotron. ("Big East or ACC?") Cut to Caron standing between the two phrases and choosing one over the other. (It wasn't ACC.) Before one of Kobe's old workout buddies would answer, he would pause long enough to give the crowd time to shout out their own choices. After the Butler announced his preference to each question, some of the crowd would cheer as if he had just validated their taste for this or for that. Which he pretty much did. Although that was only the second most important public service he provided last night.

At halftime, a young woman from San Francisco balanced herself on a very, very tall unicycle. She also used her feet to toss small bowls on top of her head. It was a certain kind of ridiculous that is better seen than described.

A minute or two before the Wizards inbounded the ball to begin the second half, Kobe Bryant emerged from the locker room. He was the last Laker to do so. A couple of his teammates had preceded him by 10 minutes. The rest straggled back on to the court in groups of two or one with no deliberate speed. The Wizards, on the other hand, were all back on the court nearly as soon as the unicycling, bowl-tossing woman left it. They were uniformly covered in their head-to-toe warms and they half-sprinted through lay-up lines. Like a hungry high school team. Or a battered NBA franchise hoping to acquire the right to draft John Wall.

As Kobe waited for the second half to begin, he stood next to Pau Gasol. More correctly, Pau wandered over to stand near him. The two gestured with their arms about some scenario known only to them that would presumably enable the Lakers to pile more points on the Verizon Center scoreboard. Or to prevent the Wizards from doing so. After they reached agreement about this scenario, Pau swung his right arm upward and grabbed Kobe's head as a big brother might do to a little brother. It made me question all the analysis of Kobe's innate asshole-ishness. Maybe it's not the virtuoso's duty to lower himself to blend with the orchestra. Maybe it's the orchestra's job to aspire to meet the standard of the virtuoso. Maybe Kobe doesn't need to be a rally-the-troops kind of leader. Maybe the locker-room hydra of Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and the Spaniard is the rightful condutor for Phil Jackson's brilliant compositions. Maybe Kobe only ever needed to be the master violinist (and occasional player of the entire string section). Maybe that's a cliched analogy doubling as a sad apology. Whatever the case, Pau pawing Kobe's scalp was my favorite moment of the game that didn't involve Shannon Brown.

When the third quarter finally began, the Lakers offense actually started creating points. Imagine that. They seemed to be spread mostly between Kobe and Pau. But that didn't matter much as the Lakers score mostly went up and the Wizards score mostly did not. With about four minutes remaining in the third--just before the Lakers decided to go back to sleep--I leaned over to Dae and asked, "Do you think any Laker fans would join me if I started a 'We Want Tacos!' chant?" One of the 75 true Wizards fan in the building laughed, shook his head and sighed all at the same time.

It seemed like a reasonable question, though. There were no empty seats I could see as I scanned the bleachers of the Verizon Center. Squatting in most of those seats were people wearing purple and gold. Or forum blue and gold, if you prefer. A lot of #24 jerseys. A few #8s. Some #16 jerseys. (But a whole bunch of Spanish flags.) A #17 jersey here. A couple of #32s over there. Even a Sasha Vujacic. While Kobe shot free throws during the first quarter, a chant of "M-V-P!" broke out. A smattering of boos countered it. According to my ear, it sounded like 70% the former and 30% the latter. (That means a lot more for Kobe than against.)

So...I started thinking of milestones. If the Lakers could hold the Wizards to 70 points after three, there was a strong possibility they would be in taco range late in the fourth. (If you've never witnessed a blowout Laker win in Staples Center, there's a long-standing promotion whereby if the Lakers can prevent their opponent from scoring 100 points, all fans in attendance can redeem their ticket stub for free tacos at Jack in the Crack...I mean Jack in the Box. That promise of being able to hold two cornshells dripping with grease has inspired a tradition whereby Laker fans chant "We Want Tacos!" whenever the defending champs are getting close to putting a Staples Center game in the refrigerator.) At the end of the third quarter last night, the Lakers led 87-72.

During the break between quarters, I noticed two things. The first was something I had observed earlier in the game. Several times. The second was something that could help make my taco dream come true.

The repeated thing I noticed was Phil Jackson wandering onto the court, clipboard in hand, sketching patiently while play was stopped and players caught their breath on the bench. I think they call that a timeout. Most times, Phil would huddle his team near the end of this stoppage to tell them something. Mostly, he sketched.

The other thing I noticed is that Dae and I were seated in the Espana section for there were dozens of people cloaked in the yellow and red of the Spanish flag. Many simply wore the flag itself like it was a double X hoodie. A small group of them--teenagers mostly--screeched a single word, "GASOL!!!!!!!"

I thought about pitching the teenagers on the idea of starting up a "We Want Tacos!" chant if the Wizards hadn't hit 100 by the 46-minute mark. After I heard Pau's acolytes speaking Spanish when they weren't making his surname echo off the rafters which hung just a couple of yardsticks above us, I thought it may take too long to explain my taco dream. I also thought that request would be one car in the xenophobia train that I probably shouldn't board.

Into the fourth quarter the game trudged. The Lakers had really run away from the Wizards in the second. They got a little bit more separation in the third, but gave most of that back before that quarter ended. The pace favored the champs throughout as it remained ironically fast. They played mostly to a draw in the fourth--with ShanWOW, Odom and Jordan Farmar catching grooves to compliment the Pau + Kobe show. The Laker lead was secure. With just under three minutes to play, the Wizards notched points 96 and 97.

Nearly a quarter of the people in 431 and the adjacent sections had departed into the chilly Washington night by that point in the game. Even some of the Laker fans had vacated early. I quickly discarded the notion that I could rally my purple and gold comrades for an amusing act of hubris. If there was going to be a "We Want Tacos!" chant in the Verizon Center, I would have to start it alone.

Possession of the ball changed a couple of times. The Wizards held on 97. Sixty-some seconds remained. The shot clock turned red. A Wizards possession looked as if it would end horribly. I finally summoned the courage to stand up and answer my own prayer.

Which is exactly when Caron Butler performed his second act of public service that night.

An errant pass from...I don't remember which of Caron's teammates...morphed into a loose ball floating toward half court. A Laker pursued it, but was a step behind the Butler. Caron coralled it and heaved the ball in the direction of the shot clock. Just as I rose from my seat, the dreaded 98th, 99th and, yes dear readers, 100th Wizards points of the game swished in. There would be no taco chant that night.

As soon as the ball oozed through the net, I regretted that I didn't begin screaming "We Want Tacos!" two possessions prior. That's really when the Lakers could have used it. And that would have allowed enough time for some other simple-minded Laker fan (or 300) to join me in slapping the home team in their 14-30 faces.

But I didn't do it. And I wouldn't get to do it. I didn't get to do the "We Want Tacos!" chant outside of Staples Center.

I failed as a Laker fan.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Prop 8: Best Thing to Happen FOR Gay Marriage

Based on what little I understand about the US Constitution, there's not a whole lot in there about morality. There's a lot of suggestions for how government is supposed to work. And a few bits about what rights people are expected to enjoy without fear of persecution. Or prosecution. But there's not much in there about how right and wrong are defined.

That's the kind of thing was left to the Bible writers.

If you're the type to thump your Bible (or Torah or Qur'an or whatever), then you may be able to make a moral argument against homosexuality. (You'd probably be kinda wrong, but you'd be welcome to try it.) What you can't really do is skim through the US Constitution and find an article on which to build a case that gay marriage is against the law.

On the contrary, you can pick any number of rights outlined in the Constitution and argue that they--as written--account for the right of people who share a gender to share some wedding vows.

That's more or less what I took from this segment Fresh Air ran yesterday.

I also took away that Prop 8 may ultimately be a good thing for gay marriage. Simply put, if you want to get a case to the Supreme Court to establish a principle as immutable law, you need a catalyst. Prop 8--while it was something of a bummer in the fall of '08--looks to be that catalyst.

While the Sups have been acting kinda strange this week, they'd be hard pressed to wholesale discard what appears to be a pretty obvious matter of constitutionality.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One Nation?

Last night around the time the pundits on my TV were calling the Massachusetts election for the Republican, my thoughts immediately turned to what the poly sci takeaways would be. Sure, there are obvious questions about the Kennedy stranglehold and the legitimate will of the people of the Bay State. There is also the matter of how parity has kinda sorta been restored on Capitol Hill. Despite those things, I couldn't help but think about patriotism. Particularly how it sometimes seems like a contrived pollutant.


Look around the earth. Look at Brazil. Russia. India. And China. Look at Ethiopia and England, too. Or...pretty much every country other than the United States. What you'll probably see when examining different applications of nationalism is a common culture. Things around which people of that nation can define a shared sense of what their country is. Things in which they can take pride. Things they can celebrate. Food. Music. Language. The national

Wherever you are in the long as you're not standing between the shining seas...there is a visceral sense of what it means to be a citizen of that country. One that is celebrated simply and naturally. Which is probably why most countries other than the US seem to talk/act in terms of "nationalism" rather than "patriotism."

Now look around the United States. It doesn't matter whether you see red, blue or purple. What you'll see is a whole lot of different shit. Different food. Different music. Different football teams. And, to the dismay of many, different languages. I think there's a term for that...something like..."melting pot."

I'm not all that bright. Nor am I all that original. So count this as the 4,080th contemplation of what the American melting pot means. This one has as its thesis a simple, fragmented notion of what constitutes America. Which, predictably, is the US Constitution. Rather, the ideas on which the US Constitution and our system of government is founded.

You know all about those ideas, right? You don't need any (more) ramblings from me about the Grand Experiment. Freedom is pretty cool. Whether it's "of" "from" or "to" it is fundamentally good. Case closed.

It's also the kind of thing that is slightly awkward to celebrate. If you're completely and utterly free, then you can do anything. Everything. And if everyone is doing anything, then what exactly are you supposed to rally around? I'm eating a hamburger. He's sluping lasagne. And she's chewing some General Tso's chicken. We're all eating. We're all happy. But we're all doing very, very different things. It's not exactly...united.

But we have the ideas. We have the opportunities. (Kinda). And we have the system. That's what makes an American. And that's it. There's nothing else for us to rally around or to draw a shared sense of identity from. It's not a good thing or a bad thing. It just is. But it's also something that I don't believe we've all come to terms with.

Some of us have a fetish for those ideas and rant joylessly about the imagined obligations that come with them--a counterintuitive act if there ever was one. One man should never be compelled to belittle or squash another man's freedom in order to execute his own.

Others of us misunderstand the ideas completely and exalt frivolity rather than freedom. American Idol hardly rises to the level of idolatry, but it isn't exactly what the founding fathers had in mind when they designed a system of civic engagement.

On the other hand, maybe that's the lighthouse in this murky sea of US identity politics. TV is good, right? That's something that America invented and that's something we can all celebrate. Right?


Maybe not.

There's too many CSIs to choose from.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Wrong Country"

The scene in Richmond, VA last fall probably called for a suit--or a least a sport coat--and a law degree--or at least the intention of obtaining one. I can not say how many players were involved. Nor can I explain the methodology whereby they arrived at their conclusion. I can only tell you that--when the ink hit the paper--they had agreed to raise the rates on the toll road I travel from DC to near West extremities of northern Virginia. Effective Jan. 1, 2010.

It is an unfortunate fate for me--and any one else who commutes occasionally along the Dulles Toll Road. What used to cost 75 cents now costs a dollar. What used to cost 50 cents now costs 75 cents. Incremental change, to be sure. But that's precisely the problem: the change.

As you approach the toll booths that populate the Dulles Toll Road, flashing lights steer you toward the lanes that are E-Z Pass accessible as well as those reserved for the unwise or stubborn souls who've yet to affix an electronic sticker to their windshields. The lanes that service the unwise blare plainly that you must use coins if you wish to pay the machine. Otherwise, you'll have to suffer the indignity of interacting with a living human being in order to hand your folding money over to the Commonwealth.

I'm unwise. But I'm not a complete fool. I traveled the toll road last week and realized that the change holder in my car was nearly emptied by the new, increased fees. I made it a point to grab a whole bunch of change from the change dish at my house on Thursday night because I knew I'd need it on Friday morning.

(Yes, that means I spent the night in the city. Probably in someone else's bed. And that's all that needs to be said about that. ;P)

Jump cut to Friday morning. NPR is telling me about what's happening in Haiti. Or maybe in the US Supreme Court. I've arrived at the very last tool booth I must endure before hopping off the parkway and slipping into my office. My paw swipes four big, round coins from my car's change holder. I good morning the old fellow manning the toll booth as I dribble each of those coins into the oversized coin collector.

As I inch my car forward, the graybeard yells something. I pump the breaks and glance at the red light that tells me I've not completed my transaction. The attendant climbs out of his post, retrieves a coin from collecting device and reaches his hand into my car window to hand me ten pence.

"Wrong country."

Whoops. Um...yeah.

I threw an American quarter into the machine and sped off.

Haven't been to the UK in more than two years. Haven't sifted through my change jar in at least that long. I'd like to be mad at the suits--or sport coats--in Richmond who caused me to dig so deep into my change reserves.

But I can't really be mad. 'Cause I wouldn't have been there in the first place if there weren't a woman involved somewhere in this story.

I think next time, I'll buy an E-Z pass. Assuming I will still have a need for one.

(Yeah, go 'head and assume that one. For both of us. ;P)