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Fathers & Sons

(Originally published on theestartingfive.net on June 12, 2012)

I cry silently every time I see a young black man hugging family and friends after donning a baseball cap representing the college he has chosen to attend when scanning the room reveals no one who looks as if they could be his father.

They at least got that far, but umpiring little league baseball games in an urban environment, I see boys surrounded by fatherlessness trying to survive in the hyper-masculinity ‘hood?   Boys full of potential bouncing between tough talk and bright smiles but smoldering underneath is emotional turmoil that explodes through under a scintilla of stress or perceived slight.

The most athletically inclined are harvested without much attention to the terrain left behind.  At best, we have a reflection of the street drug life paradigm.  There, a few may rise above the underbelly but the vast majority of slingers and soldiers squeak out a short-lived existence truncated by prison or homicide.  In the sports world, it wouldn’t be so horrific if those never able to earn a paycheck playing a game were able to carve out a profession tethered to the sweat, muscle and brain power of their former craft.  But even for those who starred or had that sip of coffee often end up thirsty and broke.

Beyond this place of running and jumping loom real riches.  Yet, most, and many professional athletes themselves, believe that athletes are overpaid.  The kajillion dollar sports industry is like manna from the sky for the ruling class and its dependents.  The slice of the pie that goes to the athletes –the flour, sugar, salt and butter- is a sliver, maybe crumbs, compared to the revenues recouped by the owners, broadcasters, administrators, marketers, apparel and equipment suppliers, medical and health providers, sponsors, security, insurance, legal, etc…

Of course, fatherhood is not a panacea to eliminate these woes and God bless the many mothers who raise children alone such as the mothers of LeBron James and Kevin Durant.  These two are not just the best players in the world about to face off in the NBA Finals but are well grounded despite one being billed as the South Beach Villain and the other as humble as Oklahoma tumbleweed.  Of course, neither is accurate but media driven story lines like that simplistic set-up much like demonizing the father figures of Earl Woods and Richard Williams.

The Atlanta Black Star is presenting a week long salute to black fatherhood focusing on books like that by NBA veteran Etan Thomas, Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge.  That book and many others on this subject is not about grooming professional athletes, but realizing how much sports can be used by fathers to meet the challenge is inescapable.

I know because I smile all over recalling my father, after one of my high school football games, tenderly massaging my cramping legs and placing me in a warm bath.  I laugh when I hear myself saying to the now younger dudes toting the pigskin, “Go son, go!” just like my father used to yell at the television.  And I anticipate with glee the next time over a baseball game he can reminisce about life.  Now, I go to bath my own young son in the rivers of my father.



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(Originally published on thestartingfive.net on April 11, 2012)

Sunday will be the 65th Anniversary that Jackie Robinson broke the so called “Colored Line.”  But black baseball has long gone away like the blues.

The writer and essayist Gerald Early during Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary “Baseball” said that “when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music. They’re the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.”

A year earlier, the sportswriter Ralph Wiley in the essay “Why Black People Don’t Often Go to Baseball Games” in his book “What Black People Should Do Now:  Dispatches from Near the Vanguard,” wrote that the American game of baseball is one of the best games ever dreamed up.

He continued, “In fact, some White men are loathe to admit that there are any other games worth playing at all (outside of golf, which was among other things, the official sport of the Nazi Party).”

Early and Wiley were born nine days apart in April of 1952.  Early born and raised in Philadelphia, Pa. has credited the writings of Amiri Baraka as heavily influencing him.  Wiley who died in 2004 was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and given his southern roots and love of the blues he might exchange blues for jazz as America’s legacy.

My mission is to discuss how blues and jazz may explain the relationship of black people and baseball or more simply explain black baseball.

Five years before Early and Wiley were born Jackie Robinson in April of 1947 began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Over the next thirty years, the percentage of African-Americans playing in the big leagues rose from one soul to its peak of about 30%.

However, by 1993 when Wiley wrote that essay there were alarms ringing that the game’s popularity was dwindling among African-Americans as the percentage of players dropped about half to 16%.  Now, almost twenty years after that essay, the figure has been halved again to about 8.5%.

Wiley confessed his love of baseball and admired the grace and beauty of black ballplayers but as he also wrote that he was not preoccupied with their participation.  He mentioned that he was concerned more about the lack of jobs and libraries as he believed that the game like breathing would take care of itself, more or less.

We know that African-Americans make up about 75% of the NBA and 65% of the NFL.  But the leading reasons usually studied to explain the declining participation in MLB are usually either sociological such as the lack of fathers to pass the game down or economic such as the cost to play the game or simply just too slow.

Those ideas have merit but perhaps there are deeper root explanations.  Perhaps, it’s like the blues.

Early’s exemplar, Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, in “Blues People; The Negro Experience in White America and The Music That Developed From It” (1963), examined the development of the blues to trace the transition of the Negro in America and by extension what it reveals about the country.

The blues is an original American musical form that was birthed by former black slaves.  But it is a bit more complex than that.

The blues musical precursor was the low pitched African (specifically West African) vocalizations, rhythms and styles (such as call and response).  Those elements formed the farming work songs in Africa that were adapted in America for work chants, shouts, and hollers to ease the burden of bondage.

But the context from which blues emerged was also the result of cultural clash of African and European worldviews.  The African supernatural worldview was that mankind had an ever present relationship with God(s).  Colonial America, however, a commercial enterprise, was a byproduct of post Renaissance Europe worldview that separated the sacred from the secular and ultimately was about mankind’s happiness and pursuits.*

This Western construct also viewed others who didn’t see the world their way as inferior.  So inferior that the slave masters initially didn’t consider slaves “worthy” of being converting to Christianity.

However, slaves after being rebuffed adapted the faith probably for several reasons.  Although the slave master eventually realized that converting would pacify rebellion in many ways conversion was initiated by the slaves as it was the sole form of social release.  Also, as mentioned, religion was so essential to the African’s worldview that adopting a captors’ “stronger gods” was the experience in Africa.

Baraka concludes that the profound anxiety regarding the reasons for his status and for the white man’s domination may have been reconciled by adapting Christianity.  This conversion led to the Africanizing of the Christian hymns and spirituals that would later help form the musical basis of the blues.

But it was after emancipation that blues blossomed.  For former slaves, the idea of returning to Africa after over 200 years of being in America was likely seen as possible as migrating to the Mars.  Thus, the best thing to do was to become American.

After slavery, blacks were free to explore other secular sentiments and the new songs began to explore concepts of redefining one’s relationship to his surroundings much like his post Renaissance white counterpart.  The form was developed by black men migrant workers seeking a livelihood roaming the south.  Yet, blues underwent an even more dramatic development as the post-Reconstruction era, Jim Crow and the Black Codes beginning in the late 1870s separated blacks from white influence.

Blues expanded in a black vacuum.  The blues man was a soloist who crafted the form with his own personal style. This would be primitive blues whose secretive nature was its beauty as that allowed the uninhibited black attitude or stance to produce a powerful expression of humanity.  However, as part of blacks Americanization, blues would eventually influence and take on other American influences.

The peak of blues as a mainstream musical form was called the classic blues era in the 1920s and 1930s after the first phase of the Great Migration where Southern blacks moved north.  In the North and Midwest, blues began being recorded and extended its mass appeal.  Woman performers also leaped to the forefront as the blues was no longer as with its origins relegated to men wandering around the country side looking for work.

But blues’ was confronted with the New Negro Movement that grew out of the Harlem Renaissance and other middle class values that trumpeted black humanity and demand for equality.  This shift dismissed blues as lower class.  Although “progress” was made it was critiqued as mimicking the white mainstream and deserting the rich black cultural heritage.  Thus, by the 1940s, the “gritty” often called “gutbucket” blues gave way to swing jazz a blues based form that was diluted enough for even whites let alone middle class blacks to appreciate.**

Mirroring blues, baseball for blacks developed separate from white influence due to the same political and social changes in America starting in the late 1870s through the early decades of the 20th century.  A few blacks during this period played with white professional teams but soon enough blacks began to develop their own teams and leagues.  The same period of the 1920s and 1930s while blues was expanding its footprint in America several Negro Leagues were formed including most prominently the Negro National League.  These leagues although not as romantic as have mythologized were perhaps the first black national operated businesses.

Black baseball preceded and perhaps precipitated the desegregation of the United States military (1948) and public education (1954).  But black baseball, like blues, although it allowed blacks to access the American mainstream it too would suffer under attack of cultural environmental change.

When Jackie Robinson became a Brooklyn Dodger, the Negro Leagues aggressive, seemingly out of control running style, in comparison to the Major Leagues, was only seen when Robinson would occasionally juke around on the base paths or make a mad dash stealing home.  Also, Hank Aaron’s cross-handed batting technique was “fixed” only upon arrival to the major leagues.

Through the years black baseball grew in popularity as it seemed a means to the mainstream major leagues while paradoxically at the same time it was dying as the style of play was being devalued.  One example is how the stolen base in major league baseball is almost as obsolete as the three yards and a cloud of dust model in the NFL.

But perhaps more importantly what was being devalued was the black attitude or approach to the game.  Where has the improvisational allure of the Willie Mays basket catch or base running of Rickey Henderson gone?  As is the case often with things that reach its peak the downfall is already underway.  Black baseball reached its peak of popularity with participation in MLB in the late 1970s.  That run lasted 30 years but the change was already afoot a decade or so earlier.

You see, playing the blues, jazz or rapping is not a rebellious act of black people.  It is within the context of white America but it’s squarely within the tradition of making sense of this culture that historically devalues its existence.

The most transformative moment for re-contextualizing this dilemma for black music may have been the 1940s black jazz musicians.  This was years after Zora Neale Hurston, the famed writer and lone voice among the Harlem Renaissance crowd that tried to remind blacks of its rich heritage.  But these jazz bluesmen who witnessed black music degenerate into soulless imitation by black and white artists alike and drift toward a composer medium rather than a musician where individuality and improvisational mattered.  They returned it back to its roots with bebop.  This music much like blues was not for dancing but for thinking.

It’s easy to see that in America being black has it liabilities but artists like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk began to grasp that their root blackness was not only not a liability but a strength.  And it was the culture that is lacking that will not appreciate these roots.

However, many of these great bluesman jazz artists tended to opt out and shunned the larger culture.  Their stereotypical image as heroin abusers was not an accident as the drugs were a part of their removal. Not until soul music exemplified by James Brown’s “Say It Loud-I’m Black and I’m Proud” worked its way into the mainstream in the 1960s did this become a cultural shift for black people.

Baseball mined the Negro Leagues (besides players it also began to play under lights five years after the Negro Leagues) but never adopted the stance or attitude of the players.  In fact, the pathos and joy of the player and fan were expected to be forsaken for “dignity” for the purpose of not disturbing white folk.  The decision was made to sacrifice the national business interests of the black community for cultural assimilation.

However, the cultural environment had changed by the time blacks began to play professional basketball and football in larger numbers.  The NFL and NBA were around during the 1940s and 50s when MLB was swelling with black players but they were not as longstanding or desirable economically or culturally.

The American Football Leagues (AFL) and American Basketball Association (ABA) in the 1960s was a time and a place that was aligned with the cultural shift.  Unlike the staid NFL, the AFL used more black players and at all positions such as “thinking” positions of middle linebacker and even quarterback.  And the ABA success was entirely based on the free flowing style that blacks brought to the game.

In essence, the AFL and ABA were akin to the Negro Leagues.  Yet the difference is that the Negro Leagues were used to acquire players and eventually folded whereas the AFL and ABA merged with the mainstream NFL and NBA.  In doing so, the mainstream league inherited the black aesthetic those other leagues cultivated.  If the color line had been broken in 1967, black people en masse might know a player like Matt Kemp one of the best players in the game other than for dating singer Rhianna.***

Early, a few years ago and long pass his interview in the “Baseball” documentary, concluded that there is not a problem with the amount of blacks playing in MLB as the percentage actually reflects the population of blacks.  Black people still do play baseball and maybe it’s not the game that is too slow – it’s just that America has sped up.


*  Thus, the tendency for whites to view blacks as fearful and childish and blacks tendency to view whites as dismissive and foolish.

**  Blues returned to its autonomous origins and a subculture as well later forming the basis of rock & roll, rhythm and blues, soul and rap.  However, each form has confronted dilution and tension to remain authentic just like jazz.

***  In comparison, Latino and Asian players and fan base place place more value on the economic gains and considerably less value in connecting MLB with culture as professional leagues still remain in their native countries.

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(Originally published on http://www.thestartingfive.net on January 16, 2012)

There are rumors and scuttlebutt that President Barack Obama on Martin Luther King Day or Muhammad Ali’s birthday, a couple days later on January 17, will convene a covert committee to commence an all inclusive study on race, sex, movies, music, sports and politics to help shape the nation’s future.

Some top aides wanted legislation mandating that by the year 2020 African-Americans effectively run the sports world.  However, Obama reminded them of the dismal failure that met President Clinton when he tried to move forward with too much too fast in implementing his massive health care reform initiative.

The goal would not be to change the participation of Blacks in sports in which they already dominate like the NBA or NFL.  Or would the purpose be to increase the population of people of color in sports like golf and hockey.  The hope is more audacious.

As a matter of record, we all know that the NBA is about 75% black as many seem obsessed with the figures and reasons while as far as the President is aware there has been not one study commissioned with respect to NASCAR to determine if people of West African have the genetic code for steering.  Furthermore, President Obama in a personal unscientific survey seemed to stump all when asking what percentage of the U.S. Congress is white.

However, Obama did find that although the European influence in the NBA is still present it can no longer be labeled an invasion with its inconsistent impact and that it has been the counterbalanced with the emergence of African-born players.  Thus, most African-Americans are okay with maintaining the current melanin count on the hardwood.

President Obama on the playground.One brother was quoted as saying to the president at one of his secret runs at a playground in the SE corner of the

President Obama on the playground

district, “There’s three things in life fo’ sure; death, taxes and the NBA stay black.”  The games were so secret that not even the Secret Service was aware until some agent noticed in passing the blacktop impressed with the footprint of the president’s one of a kind Air Force One sneakers.  They have been present at every game since.

In fact, the same dude who gave that existentialist exegesis was also heard to have mumbled something about the Secret Service presence messing up the flow.  After the president’s squad spanked his team 21-0 like ‘Bama did LSU in the BCS title game, he claimed that he couldn’t figure out how to defend that left hand weak stuff Obama was bringing but he also was fearful that if he did block it, the men with ear pieces would have taken him out.

Nor is the NFL with it being approximately 66% black and no white cornerbacks on the horizon to replace Pacman Jones in jeopardy to revert to the old NFL days where the black quota had to be an even number to avoid interracial roommate pairings on the road.  If one black player was let go based on performance another would face the same fate for no other reason than to resolve the roommate dilemma.

One former NFL player later turned blaxploitation actor Willy Yardbird said, “Negros were treated worse than animals boarding Noah’s Ark as they would get cut during training camp in twos.”

However, an unveiled memo from one NFL team found at an old dilapidated Holiday Inn marked for razing during the early stages of the establishing the study at hand is now in the hands of the administration and reveals a startling discovery.  The policy nicknamed “The Odd Man Out,“ was considered more humanitarian than the MLB housing black players in boarding homes miles away from spring training sites.

And no, as alluded above, the purpose is not to infiltrate the lush greens of Augustus with collard greens or replace the NHL hockey rinks with black ice.  Quite the contrary as it’s believed that for the most part black folk are just fine not dominating every sport.  Administration research concluded that doing so would believe to unnecessarily raise the animus of those from the majority population who find suffering in not being able to say the N-word as freely as some that bear its hallmark characteristic.  In real terms, blacks want to avoid a potential backlash like the burning down of basketball hoops in the ‘hood.

The real impetus behind this movement was an incident that happened that became a political brouhaha in February of 2011.  President Obama was reflecting on his relationship with outgoing press secretary Robert Gibbs at his final press briefing.  Obama jokingly recalled how at the last moment before addressing the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he borrowed Gibbs’ tie as none of his own options were that well like.  Obama says that he asked Gibbs to “take one for the Gipper.”

Conservatives went ballistic by firing off that Obama was again tendering himself as the new Gipper, the persona based on a film role that forged the foundation of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood and political legacy.  Some also were on the attack as he bungled the quote that revealed his true Un-Americaness.  It’s clear that Obama jumbled the phrase “take one for the team” with the immortal movie quote “win one for the Gipper” from the 1940 release Knute Rockne: All American Story.

The film purports to tell how the legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne with an anecdote about George Gipp, the first Norte Dame All-American football player, inspired his 1928 Fighting Irish to defeat heralded Army.

In the film, Pat O’Brien played the role of Rockne and Reagan played Gipp and it climaxes with Rockne’s halftime speech recalling how Gipp, on his death bed at the young age of 25 in 1920, told Rockne he wasn’t afraid to die and “Some time, Rock, when the team’s up against it; when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys — tell them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”

However, Obama, several months after taking all the guff about Gipper found more about the story and realized he needed to distance himself from even one of his political heroes.  He discovered that the Gipper was more myth than Microsoft paying people to circulate an email.

George Gipp was a drinking, gambling pool shark who didn’t attend class.  But while playing at Notre Dame and being canonized in the press he had the time to bet on college football games and hustle marks in pool and poker.  As the writer of this bit of history reveals this would be analogous to Rasheed Wallace while playing in the NBA setting up a three-card monte table in Rittenhouse Square (a posh Philadelphia neighborhood).

Finally, the deathbed visit never happened and neither were the words “win just one for Gipper” ever uttered.

President Obama found that the myth making machine of mixing sports and politics was like weaving with a magical loom.  Reagan himself would later brag to a Notre Dame alumni group in Los Angeles that same year the film was released that when he was a radio sports announcer he had the chance to talk to Gipp.  But Reagan was only nine years old when Gipp died.

Nonetheless, two score later, the Gipper becomes president and we still have trickle-down Reagnomics in effect and the aftermath of the War on Drugs.  And then, of course, the ills perpetuated by Reagan’s hand-picked successor George H.W. Bush and more of the same but worse with George W. Bush.

Upon this realization, all that could be heard emanating from the Oval Office was a piercing shout of “damn!”

Later on, a White House kitchen staff member revealed that Obama took a couple of drags from a Kool’s cigarette he bummed from him just to calm down and contemplate his next move.  The staff member recalled that the president said, “Michelle would just have to understand.”

As the president began to relax under the influence of the nicotine, he remembered a long email message he had earlier dismissed as the ranting of a deranged man.  The subject line of that email was “KK.”  The Department of Homeland Security initially thought it was from a member of the KKK who couldn’t spell.  But since nothing is ever deleted from the White House files, especially a potential threat, the president easily recovered the email.

In essence, the email recounted how the selection of Marvin Gaye to sing the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles had set off a series of events that are wreaking havoc to this day.  So, Obama was now also linking how not only sports movies but the national anthem at sporting events shaped our future.

The original singer proposed for the gig was Lionel Richie but he was passed over as not being viewed as “big enough.”  You see, this was pre-pop music Lionel Richie; no one beyond the color barrier new Commodores Richie when he was known in his native southern funk drawl as LION-nel before his transformation to Line-NEL.

More on that development later but now back to Gaye.  Gaye, high on coke and riding a revival with his last big hit “Sexual Healing” turned an old English drinking song tune that was sampled for the Star-Bangled Banner known as our national anthem into a spiritual groove thang.  The crowd and the all-stars playing that day were swooning and swaying in rhythm.

However, as the letter writer concluded, there were many so called patriots pissed off at Mr. Gaye’s treatment.  Almost a year later he was dead.  The official report was that his father shot him but conspiracy theorists do not see his death soon after that performance as a coincidence.

Anyway, Richie so upset over being overlooked for the all-star game cranked up his crossover to pop music.  He released “Stuck on You” and later “Dancing on the Ceiling” on the heels of that disappointment.  The deal with the devil paid off.  Next thing you know, Richie is involved with “We Are the World” and performing at the 1984 Olympic Games also held in Los Angeles.

Richie, at the time, full of hubris, was known to yell seemingly out of the blue, “I’m Richie!”  Rick James heard it one night and later imitated it adding street flavor with “I’m Rich James, bitch!” and that was later comically and famously incorporated into a skit by Dave Chappelle.

But the dark side of this deal was that Richie would be infamously physically beaten by his three times a lady wife, Brenda, after discovering his infidelity.  There was also an inexplicable and sharp decline in popularity despite onerous attempts to maintain musical relevance.

But the worst part was that his adopted daughter, Nicole, became a problem child.  She would ride on the coattails of her father’s pop success and ultimately befriend rich socialite Paris Hilton.  That crew would expand with none other than Kim Kardashian (KK).  Now, perhaps there was a parallel plan for her entry into the sports world as her father Robert, was of course a friend and lawyer for O.J. Simpson.

But President Obama as he was digesting the email contents began to connect the dots.  The root cause be it Gaye or O.J. was almost immaterial.  KK had already sexually sabotaged football players Reggie Bush and Miles Austin.  The email written well before her 72 day “farriage” (fake marriage) with NBA player Kris Humphries just gave more credence to its allegations that maybe the fateful decision to go with Gaye at the ’83 NBA All-Star game has been far reaching.  Then, Obama, once the rumors surfaced that Kobe Bryant allegedly cheated on his wife Vanessa Bryant with a girlfriend of KK, knew that it was time to act.

Obama felt that KK, a confirmed white woman with a classic black booty was a lethal combination that if used for evil could unduly influence the sports world.  Yet, he also realized that KK was but a pawn in the bigger picture that must be addressed.  The issue, much like the theories behind the Military Industrial Complex and Prison Industrial Complex, required a comprehensive examination of the intersection of race, sex, movies, music, sports and politics.

The administration began to seek input from various think tanks and organizations.  What they got in return were several groups lobbying the president to institute reforms, initiate studies and policies that promoted their political platform.

The first group led by Davis Dubois, called The 10%, not to be confused with Five Percenters or the 1%, wanted to mandate that black athletes must attend college for four years.  The NFL could no longer operate a combine that paraded athletes almost nude for eyeballing and measuring.  All black broadcasters have to pass an Ebonics language test.    Rather than the Star-Bangled Banner being sung at sporting events, a rendition of the song that Alicia Keys and Angie Stone sang at the 2002 NBA All-Star Game in Philly that mixed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with “America the Beautiful.”

Also, a study concerning how no one with the surname of Jefferson played in the NBA until Richard Jefferson was drafted in 2001 (Al Jefferson doubled the figure when he entered the NBA in 2004).  This statistical oddity is suspicious in that Thomas Jefferson or his brother (or both) were known to have fathered children with slaves, most famously Sally Hemings.  Another study would be to exhume the body of Babe Ruth and subject it to DNA tests to determine once and for all if he was of African descent.

Finally, this group would have the movie Remember the Titans starring Denzel Washington as the film and the quote “I don’t scratch my head unless it itches and I don’t dance unless I hear some music.” that would propel Mr. Washington to the White House.

Another faction called the JDubbs led by John Washington is maybe what would be considered more grass roots.  They see the problem that blacks got away from playing the national pastime.  They desire that blacks only play baseball.  And they want an investigation as to how the horse racing industry no longer has any black jockeys when the sport was dominated by blacks in the 1800s.  They see a possible direct link into the dwindling numbers of African-Americans playing in the Major Leagues.  They would have the movie The Bingo Long Travelling All-Stars & Motor Kings pave the way for Billy Dee Williams’ political path.

The more radical group led by Funky X. Hampton want to investigate whether James Naismith actually invented the game of basketball.  There are buoyed by the fact that Abner Doubleday has been depicted as a fraud who by no means invented the game of baseball.  Hampton wants to ensure that Robert Griffith III is drafted number one overall in the upcoming NFL draft and not the golden boy Andrew Luck.  The group known as the Funky X Bunch or FX Bunch also demands the commissioners of the NFL and NBA have barbershop summits to talk smack and resolve disputes among the brothers.

They see no reason why an NBA All-Star game can’t be held at Rucker Park in Harlem with Rakim spitting the national anthem as well and a corresponding televised spades tournament.  But the longtime prospects of the FX Bunch rely on Brian’s Song catapulting Billy Dee’s political career.  The major concern with that is that, as mentioned already, the JDubbs also want Williams.  They, however, think Williams will throw his hat in the ring with them because as a former alderman in Chicago from Mahogany he has a kinship with their urban coalition.

The last group thought to have influence would be the Iso’s led by Markeese Garvey.  The Iso’s want to return to an era of the Negro Leagues, Harlem Globetroters and Harlem Rens where blacks played in their own leagues or barnstormed against white teams while maintaining control over the finances and such.  They want to nationalize BET but allow TV One to remain independent but both undergo major upgrades in facilities and staffing to broadcasts the all-black leagues.

Their platform also wants a study into who slept with more women: Wilt Chamberlain or legendary boxer Jack Johnson.  But most importantly, they see the movie Hurricane as the vehicle to take the White House.  They don’t want Denzel though who portrayed Rubin “Hurricane” Carter as their candidate.  They want the real deal, Mr. Carter himself.  They just have to get him to renounce his Canadian citizenship and move back to the States.

Well, there is another group but they are not gaining much traction.  The Venus Vote led by Fannie Boo Rudolph is a feminist group that wants the WNBA to cease operation unless they lower the rim to 8.5 feet.  The Venus Vote is also spearheading the movement to have Whitney Houston’s recorded version of the national anthem sung at Super Bowl XXV to be used at all sporting events.  Their hopes for future political power rest in highlighting Love & Basketball and Sanaa Lathan becoming the first African-American woman president.

The President has advised these groups that he will consider their thoughts and ideas as he forms the committee and he left each group according to Hampton, with the words, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.”

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(Originally posted on thestartingfive.net on Nov. 11, 2011)

The initial reports that Julius Erving’s auctioning off memorabilia was linked to his alleged financial woes.  Erving responded that he’s not a “hoarder or collector” and that the auction is for charity denying any connection to his personal financial circumstances.

Many seem to think that the sale of MVP trophies or championship rings will wipe away the memories.  But proving that memories are more complex than carbohydrates, the autographed photograph of the 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers actually reminded me that this year marks the 35th anniversary of the team many consider the best team to not win a championship.

The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers were contenders like Brando on the waterfront in just four short seasons after the franchise finished 9-73; the nadir of NBA futility.  But after that infamous season the team began to bounce back by hiring Gene Shue to coach and drafting Doug Collins, a 6-6 shooting guard from Illinois State, with the number one overall selection.

George McGinnis vastly improved the team by joining prior to the start of the 1975-76 season.  He was actually drafted by the 76ers in the same year as Collins.  That would have been after McGinnis’ senior year at Indiana University but by then he was already under contract and playing with the  Indiana Pacers in the ABA.  The burly 6-8 McGinnis, a native of Indianapolis, left Indiana after his sophomore year as the Big Ten Player of the Year (his first and only season as then NCAA rules banned freshmen from playing varsity) to join the hometown Pacers.

The NBA led by then legal counsel David Stern a few years earlier defended its rule that only players whose college class had graduated were eligible to be drafted.  Although the NBA’s settlement of the law suit brought by Spencer Haywood allowed him and others to enter as underclassmen, a player had to demonstrate financial need under their “hardship” exception.
McGinnis and others didn’t feel obligated to turn over tax returns to make a living and jumped to play in the less restrictive ABA.  Listening to the advice to take the money and run he also avoided the wrath of the incoming coach named Bobby Knight.  So, with the 76ers retaining McGinnis’ rights while he played in the ABA, he was in Philly after four seasons with the Pacers.

But the home team for the City of Brotherly Love became the envy of the NBA with the acquisition of ABA legend Julius “Dr.J” Erving before the start of the 1976-77 season.  Up to that point, his hair flying acrobatics were performed in the ABA and with no national television coverage he was as visible as underground hip hop.  But now, Doc, winner of multiple ABA titles and MVP honors was ready to operate in the NBA.

The ABA had fought a good fight with the older more established NBA battling for players like high stakes pick-up basketball but its run had ended.  The two leagues completed a merger with the NBA taking in four of the former ABA teams including Erving’s New York Nets.

However, the New York Knicks demanded the Nets pay a $3 million fee for interfering with their territorial rights.  The cash strapped Nets had already paid league entrance fees and faced with meeting Erving’s contract demands offered him to the Knicks in lieu of the territorial rights payment. But inexplicably the Knicks rejected that deal.

The 76ers, however, paid that $3 million to the Nets to settle the Knicks’ demand and signed Erving to a $3 million dollar contract.  In essence, Doc was the real six million dollar man.  But the deal was not consummated until days before the season as evidenced by the Sports Illustrated cover of its pro basketball edition with Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics with Erving still in his Nets’ uniform.  And Erving is nowhere to be seen on the 76ers’ 1976-77 media guide.

Erving in just in his fifth year of pro ball was joining a youthful team.   The season before his arrival was also the last for aging vets Billy “Kangaroo Kid”Cunningham and Wali Jones who to the younger players may have seemed like a dying breed of saber-tooth tigers from the Jurassic period when the team won its last title in 1967.  Also, Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, the lone holdover from the nine win team would not finish ‘76-77 the season with the 76ers.  (Cunningham and Jones missed that nine win season playing in the ABA and Milwaukee respectively before returning to the 76ers to finish their careers).

So, the oldest player on the team was six-year vet Steve Mix who was acquired from the Detroit Pistons prior to the 1973-74 season.  Mix could do a lot despite limited mobility with his smooth left-hand jumper making his game as efficient as a small apartment.

Also drafted in 1973, the same year as Collins and McGinnis, were Harvey Catchings and Caldwell Jones.  Catchings, a defensive-minded player, was a back-up center who did not play due to an injury until a year later in the 1974-75 season.  And starting center Jones from Albany State did not arrive until the 1976-77 season after playing in the ABA where he averaged a double-double.  He was 6-11 whose long legs and arms when stretched atop his head gave him the appearance of a big #11 matching his uniform number.

Then in the 1975 NBA Draft, the 76ers selected three players with big egos and sometimes the game to match.

Right out of a Florida everglades high school via the Planet Lovetron, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins was a colorful giant-child who had a quip for any occasion and name for every dunk.
Here are a few of his offerings:

The get out the wayin’, back-door swayin’, game delayin’, if you ain’t groovin’ you best get movin’ dunk’.

The Chocolate Thunder flyin’, glass flyin’, Robizine cryin’, parents cryin’, babies cryin’, glass still flyin’, rump roasting, bun toasting, thank you wham ma’am I am’ jam.

The left-handed spine-chiller supreme.

The turbo sexophonic delight.

Almost as free of a spirit was Brooklyn-bred  Lloyd Free.  The bow-legged Free was the back-up point guard with a rainbow jump shot.  Then there was native son  Joe “Jellybean” Bryant from LaSalle.

And new to the team along with Erving was four-year vet and starting guard  Henry Bibby who won a title with the New York Knicks as a rookie in 1973 and rookie draftees Brooklyn boy Mike Dunleavy from the University of South Carolina and Terry Furlow out of Michigan State.

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(Originally posted on thestartingfive.net on Nov. 17, 2011)

Math is the study of quantity, space, structure and change to find some eternal truth. Often, the research to solve a mathematical problem takes years, decades or centuries.  The 1976-77 Philadelphia 76ers were just one classical experiment along with others including the 1996-97 Houston Rockets, 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers, 2007-08 Boston Celtics and 2010-11 Miami Heat.

The experiment is more like a hoop hypothesis that stipulates that a “dream team” of talent can transform into a champion. The answer lies in the ability of five men to mesh on a court 94 feet long by sharing one ball. But execution is the key. At its best, the rock flows like milk and honey but at its worst becomes a stagnant struggle among crack heads over that last hit.

Despite or maybe because of all the fanfare with the acquisition of Julius Erving, the question emerged as to how this new variable would interact with the team. George McGinnis was coming off the previous season as the top scoring threat at 23.0 ppg. Not only would Erving’s arrival potentially have a negative psychic impact tread on McGinnis’ role as the unfettered leader but his presence would challenge basketball fundamentals and the laws of physics that no two objects can share the same space at the same time.

You see, Doc, unlike most small forwards, played inside out. His jump shot was effective but not his strength and he would blow by any defender from the wing. But a lot of his offense was generated in the paint and around the rim infringing upon McGinnis’ area reserved for power forwards.

The proposition had a problematic certainty. Marvin Gaye once sang about it when he crooned there’s only three things that’s for sho’;  taxes, death and trouble.

However, with the 76ers there was little time to ponder as Doc signed just a mere two days before the first game.  He may have met his teammates for the first time at the shoot-around of the season opener.  But perhaps entering that game, the thought was that it was Erving’s good fortune that the opponent was an old familiar ABA foe in the San Antonio Spurs  The Spurs were led by George “Ice Man” Gervin, a former teammate of Erving’s from their first pro team, the Virginia Squires.  (Interestingly, Ice Man began his career with Erving and finished in Chicago with Michael Jordan).

But the 76ers lost to the Spurs and their next game as well.  And after eight games, the 76ers were a mediocre 4-4.  The quiet whispers that Doc was a product of a weaker ABA became increasingly noisy chit chatter.  His season scoring average would dip from 29.3 to 21.6 ppg.  The bigger issue was that he seemed unsure of his surroundings and his teammate whereabouts on the floor.  He often would get caught leaping into midair with the ball with no shot opportunity or teammate to pass to.

Doug Collins, a great perimeter shooter evidenced by his .518 field goal percentage, however, was losing shot attempts.  The two point guards, Henry Bibby and Lloyd Free were shoot first point guards.  Caldwell Jones’ dynamic offensive skills shown in the ABA were stifled.  While Darryl Dawkins in his second year out of high school seemed to check-in with two personals as he was constantly in foul trouble.

Yet, with McGinnis scoring at a 21.4 per game clip right behind scoring leader Erving, the 76ers managed to win 50 games to lead the Eastern Conference.  After a bye, the 76ers faced the defending champs Boston Celtics.  The 76ers dropped the opening game and had to eke out an 83-77 win in Game 7.  In the conference finals, they handled the Houston Rockets in six games to advance to the Finals.

Awaiting was the just seven-year old expansion team Portland Trail Blazers coached by former 76ers coach Jack Ramsay (1968-72). In the Western Conference Finals, the upstart Blazers swept Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers who had finished the season with league best 53 wins.  The Blazers were led by UCLA legend Bill Walton, a brilliant but brittle player.

Facing such an unheralded team, Philadelphians assumed the championship was its destiny.   The opening seconds of Game 1 on the 76ers home court at the Spectrum only reassured the Philly fandom.  The 76ers executed the perfect opening jump ball that looked like a quick turn of a 6-4-3 double play that resulted in a Doc slam.  The 76ers went on to wrap up that game 107-101. And the 76ers came back three nights later to smash the Blazers 107-89.

However, the series turned for the worst for the 76ers despite that win.  Late in the game with the outcome determined Dawkins and Blazers forward Bobby Gross got entangled over a rebound.  Heated words were exchanged that prompted a Dawkins’ left hook in Gross’ direction.  However, he hit teammate Collins.  Nonetheless, Maurice Lucas, the Blazers tough enforcer stepped in and popped Dawkins in the back of the head sending him sprawling but not deterred.

Then, well, why don’t you just  see for yourself.

After the brawl, the two teams seem to go in different direction.  The Blazers seemed ultra- motivated while the 76ers lack aggressiveness.  In Portland, Games 3 and 4 Dawkins was invisible and Lucas shut down McGinnis with both games being Blazers’ routs. Back in Philadelphia for Game 5, the 76ers came up short again 110-104.

The 76ers courageously fought the almost inevitable in  Game 6.  McGinnis had one of his best games and Doc poured in 40 points but the bitter end was McGinnis’ one-hand short jumper bouncing off the front of the rim that would have forced overtime.

There is no science to the aftermath.  It’s mostly picking up the pieces and moving on.  But the team came back for the 1977-78 season steadfast almost intact with a marketing campaign of “We owe you one.”  However, the first fallout of the aftermath was felt six games into that season.

With a record of 2-4, the Shue was dropped.  Head Coach Gene Shue was replaced on the bench by former 76ers all-time great player Billy Cunningham.  The 76ers won more games with a 53-23 record but lost to eventual champions Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The team would proceed over the next several years to deliver on that promissory note of a title with personnel moves big and small.  The team made a major move in trading McGinnis to the Denver Nuggets for defensive specialist Bobby Jones.  And that same year saw the arrival of point guard Maurice Cheeks, the Chicago native drafted out of tiny West Texas State.

That was also the end of Lloyd Free in Philly who would be reborn as World B. Free.  A year later, Joe Bryant would be gone as well and who sometime later was rumored to have reflected with braggadocios announcing that it seemed that the 76ers didn’t want a Magic Johnson type around there.

Injuries (Collins), free agency (Dawkins), and trades (Jones) transformed the team over the next few years.  And after losing two more times in the Finals to the Lakers (‘80, ‘82) all but Doc would be gone from the 1976-77 team.  History reveals that Moses Malone was the missing piece along with Andrew Toney, “The Boston Strangler,” that pushed the fo’-fo’-fo’ 76ers pass the Lakers to win the 1983 NBA Finals but that 1976-77 will never be forgotten.

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(Originally posted on http://www.iamagm.com on November 1, 2011)

“I was sick.”

The haunting words of Chris Herren haltingly come out as he reflects on photos from 2000 during his drug-filled days and nights with the Boston Celtics. The sentiments still sound harrowing even as we speak over the phone. They echo the desperation of a hometown hero from nearby Fall River, Massachusetts wearing his Celtics warm-ups minutes before tipoff feinding for a fix in the rain outside the Fleet Center waiting for his pusher man.

It would get worse.

Several years later after playing and getting high all across the globe in Europe, China and Tehran, Iran his career ended. He came back to Fall River and was still heavily using.

Then, in 2007, he died.

He was dead like Freddy for thirty seconds according to the police who found him slumped over the driving wheel of his car at a the gates of a cemetery overdosed on heroin with the needle still sticking in his arm.

The irony does not end with the location of his short-lived death. Herren recalls that as the best day of his life as it started the turnaround from living a lie that began with swigging vodka as a 6-2 McDonald’s High School All-American at Durfee High in Fall River.

The long road to recovery is often lonely and never ends.  But the 36 year-old whom former college coach Jerry Tarkanian labeled as the next Jerry West finally feels free after just completing his third year of sobriety.

“I am amazingly blessed,” said Herren.

This past May, his story with the help of co-author Providence Journal-Bulletin sports columnist Bill Reynolds was shared in the publication of his memoir Basketball Junkie. Now, on November 1, ESPN will broadcast Unguarded, a documentary film that will let us peer into his rise, fall and recovery.

The film was directed by Jonathan Hock who also directed Through the Fire that followed Sebastian Telfair through his senior year at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. Last year, Hock also delivered for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, The Best That Never Was, a film on former University of Oklahoma and NFL running back Marcus Dupree.

“I see a lot of similarities between Marcus and Chris in that both have no regrets about what happened in their lives,” said Hock. “But they have accepted it with grace and embraced their destiny. Most people tend to portray sports films with the game itself as the source of the redemption. But with Chris it was the opposite. It wasn’t until he was able to give up the game that redemption came.”

Just as there are similarities between the subjects Dupree and Herren, the two documentaries share a similar aesthetic.  Although Herren’s book gives up more grimy and gritty details of his dope sickness, Hock’s camera with the help of another documentarian group’s footage from the late 90s that was never released reveals the beautiful story of loyalty, love and hope.

Many basketball fans may not remember Herren who was drafted with the 33rd  pick by the Denver Nuggets in the 1999 NBA Draft and only played two seasons in the NBA. However, before he hit high school he was in the media spotlight. And Hock appreciates how the heat of the spotlight has not scorched Herren.

“Chris was born into a basketball cauldron where his destiny was assumed to be a basketball star,” says Hock. “But the truth, that wasn’t his destiny.”

His grandfather, father and older brother Michael all starred at Durfee High in Fall River. Michael was always bigger and stronger who never lost a fight or a game in the town’s Milliken league for youth basketball and captured two state championships. Although the film allows Michael’s devotion for his brother to shine through as it does his tough-guy humor, the Herren household led by their father was a pressure cooker where winning was demanded.

There was also the burden placed upon his shoulders by the entire town to be a legend.  During Herren’s junior year at Durfee he was the focus of the book Fall River Dreams by the same Bill Reynolds who two decades later would co-author Herren’s memoir.  The earlier book examined an old mill town with deep high school hoops roots during its economic demise that procured hope by obsessively following a few teenage boys bounce a basketball.

And on the other side was the caustic barrage of opposing fans spewing hate toward the so called superstar.  This was from kids and adults alike.

It was all so confusing and overwhelming that he numbed the chaos with drinking.

In Unguarded, Herren is seen as loyal to his town and its people.  The loyalty that supersedes the pressure heaped on him to perform and bring multiple championships to Durfee.  The loyalty that trumps the town’s expectation that no more was projected of him beyond his talented schoolboy exploits.  The loyalty that speaks to the fatalism of the town’s unofficial motto, “Born in Fall River, Die in Fall River.”

This same sense of loyalty sent him to the local Big East school Boston College.  He had turned down Rick Pitino and Kentucky along with Syracuse and Jim Boeheim, two schools that fit his open court playing style. But he chose BC because it was close by and then head coach Jim O’Brien had recruited his older brother Michael to the Chestnut Hill campus until an injury ended his career.

However, at BC, he found cocaine or cocaine found him and he was dismissed from the team for failing several drug tests and left school.  Herren landed on his feet like a cat on his third life at Fresno State under Jerry Tarkanian. He was among a cast of many receiving last chances such as future NBA players Rafer Alston and Courtney Alexander.

The team was also full of Bloods and Crips from Southern California who Herren had no problems meshing with due in part likely to his on court swagger usually associated with inner-city black players. But soon enough, he began using a new drug in ecstasy and arriving at games high on coke without sleeping for days.

However, he somehow was able to still excel and was eventually drafted into the NBA. But the summer after his rookie season where he was relatively clean under the guidance of some caring veterans, he was traded to Boston.

The return trip home was Wolfeian and the worst thing that could have happened to him.  His downward spiral accelerated on Oxycotin that he was introduced to as part of his recovery from an injury. Also, back in familiar territory he knew where all the drug dealers were like they were Dunkin’ Donuts.

This is where love kicks in.

Through it all, Herren’s wife Heather was his anchor.  The two have been together since they met the summer before they both entered the 7th grade.  In the film, she admits to enabling the situation where Herren could only function when he was high but she never gave up on her husband and father of their children and finally demanded he kick the habit or get out of their lives.

Herren got sober at Daytop Village in upstate New York where he completed a successful rehab stint.  Since then, he has resettled in Portsmouth, Rhode Island near Fall River and started Hoop Dreams with Chris Herren providing basketball training as well as educational talks.

His case manager at Daytop Village, William Spooner, a recovering alcoholic who began his counseling career after treatment at the facility is mindful that recovery is a vigilant process.

“The work doesn’t stop once you leave here,” says Spooner. “I always think positive about a person when they leave but you have to be able to live life on life’s terms.  Chris got through it because of the love for his wife and children.”

Then there’s hope.

The cameras in the film capture Herren’s talks with students, military personnel and prison inmates that provide the film’s narration for his nightmarish journey.  Hock reveals that Herren is so emotionally present and unguarded about his life (hence the title of the film that doubles as an unintended basketball pun).

“He doesn’t walk in there and speak about achieving your goals,” says Hock. “Chris tells them about his past but there is a message of hope. It’s a dark and difficult place to go but he does it.”

The paradox is inescapable that telling his story only brings notoriety and the notion that such attention could be a trigger like with his prior drug use.  And he realizes that to be there for his family he must – as selfish as this sounds – take care of himself first.

“I can’t lie about the attention, it does add pressure but it’s more important that I get out and tell my story,” said Herren. “I believe in it and there are millions of people out there struggling who could use this.  I just got an email from an overweight teenage girl who was bullied and teased in school and so she would cut herself to relieve the pain. But after hearing me talk about my life, she got the courage to confront them and begin healing.”

The film itself has been a gift to the Herren family allowing them to reconcile the pain of the past and poignantly reveals how Herren can now literally look into the mirror.

Herren never bought into Tarks’ comparison to Jerry West but he had the opportunity to meet and talk to him while he was at Fresno State. He recollects that he would be giddy with joy whenever West would say a few words to him. Pausing now to reflect on West’s revelations about depression through interviews concerning his impending book release, Herren is still in awe.

He’s a legend-the NBA symbol,” said Herren. “But he will be better remembered for his courage educating people about his illness.”

It seems that Herren is the next Jerry West.

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 In the aftermath of last night’s Boston Celtics 120-88 rout over the Cleveland Cavaliers last night to go up 3-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals, both scribes and spectators  are questioning the basketball lineage of the King.   The basketball world is wondering if LeBron James deserves or will he ever reach the pantheon of the greatest of the great? 

Perhaps, the inquiries and lables of LeBrick, LeBronze or LeGon are justified as LeBron James’ poor shooting and all around inertia on the court in Game 5 has pretty much put his team on the precipice of not even making the conference finals let alone winning his first NBA title. Recently, Magic Johnson bequeathed the title of “the best player in the game” upon LeBron during an interview about his selection as this year’s MVP.  And this was supposed to be the year that LeBron would fulfill the prophecy.  His idol Michael Jordan copped his first ring in his seventh season, which LeBron is in now.

Within basketball and at its logical conclusion – the NBA – there is an eternal tension.

At its most harmonious, the game like jazz shares a fundamental form of individual improvisation with teamwork.  In both, there is the understanding that each player is functioning alone but in response to all the choices made by each other in real time. The game is based on rhythm and not a set formula or algorithm.


However, often, the game hinges on one player dominating the action.   The best player is expected to carry a team on his back and save the day like a comic book hero.  Ultimately, the game seems to require a great solo performer much like a virtuoso rapper spittin’ alone at the mic save a phat back beat (at least back-in-the-day pre auto-tune).   

In the post tape-delayed universe of the NBA (since 1980, the last time an NBA Finals due to poor ratings was broadcast on tape delay) there have been several players deemed great because of winning multiple championships.   Magic and Isiah Thomas could be defined as those who operated mostly within the kumbaya jazz realm.  Oh, you might not think of Isiah like that but he truly sublimated his game for the benefit of the team.    Jordan and Kobe Bryant stand out as players most aligned within the hubristic hip hop mode.

Now for sure, none of the above mentioned is totally within one category as then you would at one become Jason Kidd or Dominique Wilkins at the other.  And every player has flaws in their game or personal fault lines that could crash and dash thier championship dreams. 

But the King at this very moment seems torn at which way to play.   The hpnotiq basketball mix of Magic and Mike is playing schizophrenic.  I don’t see a plan. One half he’s Magic but the other he’s Mike.  One game he’s Kobe then the next he’s Isiah.  It works sometimes but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Beyond his own faults, he must overcome the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: a suspect coach, a crappy supporting cast and playing in a town that has not won a professional sports title since 1964.  

It’s time for LeBron to welcome the chance to define his legacy.   Confucius (my fortune cookie from my Chinese dinner tonight) said: Adversity is the prosperity of the great.

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