Basketball As Life

Lately, I have been assessing the meaning of life as it relates to writing a meaningful journal about music, sports and culture. Basketball has been my simple cleansing experience since I was a child so, unlike some sportswriters who scarcely play, the physical part of it has etched itself into the creases of my brain. I start with jumpshots and dribbling as soon as I get to the court. My blood flows warm in my muscles; my heart rate skips; sweat starts to pour. Then, after that random session of shots from every angle, put-backs, hooks and hard drives, I settle into a more practiced routine of free throws. After every series of five made free throws, I might take a longer shot or a driving layup again. Point being, I need a mix of improvisation and fixed motions to feel at full sportive ability.

But what is the balance we seek between youthful improvisation and old-man sageness? At the courts, the gaming 30-somethings always chide the youths for “doing all that and going nowhere,” not taking advantage of single motion, favoring jerks and shimmies to aggressive simplicity. Basketball is a style choice both for the viewer and the participant. My style? I like to minimize dribble, take bold steps into the lane and create space at any cost. If I get hot though from the perimeter, throw away all notions of efficiency. I’m tossing up shots from either side of the court, and driving for shots that I wouldn’t normally ponder. The same rings true for my tastes of late which becomes downright confusing.

In terms of art, I value the improvisational aspect as genius just as much as I value the perfection of form. I’ve witnessed this opinion warfare raging with some fellow writers and critics about the value of Lil Wayne in this regard. Everyone agrees that his flow is unique, unmatched, unorthodox. The form-junkies, however, think he’s a failure at everything sacred in rap music. To them he’s like the talented athletic forward in the NBA draft with few discernible perfections and many dreamt-up advantages. To me, he’s like the amalgam of Biggie’s flow and Eminem’s wild drug abuse and inconsistency. “A Milli,” with its furious routing and re-routing ideas could be likened to a young player’s wild shots hoisted with abandon, but invariably falling through the net. Nas is on the opposite end of the spectrum, not as far as his flow is concerned, but he remains glued to form and concept. His entire opus is devoted to moods and themes. Illmatic is the perceived pinnacle of form but “Nigger”/Untitled has its own set premise. Strangely, his commitment to concepts leads him as far from his intention at times as Wayne’s inability to remain coherent does. Although child-like limberness of mind inspires artistic beauty, it will not sustain it. Efficiency and proliferation may go hand in hand, but are a reluctant pair in the mind of an artist.

This year’s NBA Finals showed Kobe Bryant attempting that difficult balance. His creative plan was thwarted by resolute defense, and no style defined by restraint could get him past a collective will. Lil Wayne also struggled to confine his album to the usual standards, however seasoned with brilliance it was. The mixtape had been his vehicle of choice because it shunned the normal, allowing his “freestyles” to seem more like labyrinthine journeys into his agile thought process. The Carter III emulates the spirit of Wayne’s World but will not defer to its adolescent insularity. Perhaps, he estimated incorrectly about his strengths in that respect. Lil Wayne’s permanent concern should be how to remain fresh as he tames his wild side or he will fall prey to its sad consequences.

Nas’s “Hero” suffers from the inverse problem. Polow Da Don stretches the gargantuan quality of his sound with climbing beeps and church organs, and Nas’s lyrical grandeur is in full effect. Just as Wayne stridently believes in his ability to grab words from the sky for his purpose, Nas pins them down in his tightly stitched patterns, never dropping one syllable. Unfortunately, “Hero” borders on the cliche that has haunted him as the self-proclaimed martyr of his genre. Keri Hilson belts out “Heeee-RO! Heee-RO!” for emphasis but Nas only barely accepts the title in his screaming verses. For instance, the second verse tamps down any righteous boon with lines like “That’s what I call a pimp!/That’s what I call a G!” Of course, the third verse backs far away from that posture with “if you don’t like it, you ain’t gotta cop it,” and “no matter what the CD called/I’m unbeatable y’all.” Like the oracle’s messages, his lyrics read like decoded flummery when put under the magnifying glass. Nas is like Kevin Garnett in that, withstanding constant criticism over time coupled with embracing a complete understanding of the game, he has become a paragon of form…with some truly schizophrenic moments of resignation. As a true hero of my childhood and of my artistry, he can only be so great. His talents tend to buffer his flaws nicely, so that I both understand my frustration with his shortcomings and empathize with him.

It seems silly that black men will look to a youthful game to define ourselves, or even to a youthful culture to grant us the power of expression. Really, the society allows us to be unapologetic about the ways and means of survival more than it shows us ways to be humble and striving. I am more guilty than Nas or Kanye or Kobe or Dwayne of letting my suspended adolescence affect my ability to accomplish. I have hurt others with my sense of entitlement and self-pitying acquittal from most responsibility. Starpower’s “Crazy All Over Again” and “Bring Him Back” from The Petting Zoo mixtape convey these regrets more potently than I ever could. Similarly, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land was a formative novel in my life. My peers and I often joked about its title but we scarcely knew how it would be to walk in the world of lost man-children, finding ways to be men even when we saw our best men cut down for reaching that level. That inner child will shield you from both painful realities and necessary ones. Walk good young man.
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