Jan 25, 2013

Goin' Down Slow

I've had my fun/if I don't get well no more/my health is failing me/and I'm goin' down slow/please write my mother/tell her the shape I'm in/tell her to pray for me/forgive me for my sin.  
                             Howlin' Wolf, "Goin' Down Slow"

The last time that there was an NFL team in LA, Bill Clinton was still in his first term, no one had ever heard of a tweet, and Moby Dick was still a minnow.  In spite of this glaring absence, the city, short of a few entrepreneurs contemplating stadium deals, has really seemed not to care that the NFL brand has had no home in the nation's second largest city.  One of the main reasons that this has seemed not to matter is due to the large shadow cast by the Los Angeles Lakers.

There is always a lot of nostalgia around the Dodgers in this town, but beyond that, as far as pro sports are concerned, the Lakers have since the 1980s ruled the LA sports landscape with an iron fist.  No pro football team has meant no big deal as the Lakers have continually provided drama and intrigue even when it wasn't basketball season.  There is no doubt that LA is a basketball town.  To say that LA is a basketball town though is really to say that it's a Laker town, as the purple and gold are synonymous with basketball in this city.  Or perhaps I'm speaking in past tense here?

The City of Angles is at a precarious moment in its basketball history. The Lakers are sinking deeper and deeper into irrelevance, in spite of a roster that includes two former league MVPs, two former Defensive Player of the Year award winners, a Sixth Man of the Year award winner, and six current or former All Stars.  This precipitous decline would be one thing if it were only that, but as the Lakers have sunk to unforeseen lows, the Los Angeles Clippers, the city's orphaned stepchild of a franchise, has developed into one of the best teams in the league. 

The Lakers have been unraveling every since Andrew Bynum pulled off his jersey and walked off the court when he, along with Lamar Odom, were tossed while the team was being swept off the floor during Game 4 of the second round playoff series against Dallas in 2011.  When that game ended Phil Jackson drifted into retirement, while the Lakers began their drift into mediocrity.  In that series Pau Gasol looked more like the soft Pau who showed up in the 2008 Finals against Boston, than the skilled big man who showed up during successful '09 and '10 championship campaigns.  Kobe Bryant was unremarkable in this series also, though many would blame this on a lingering knee injury.  The Lakers, a team with three seven footers, who a year earlier had outlasted Boston in seven games to win another NBA title, suddenly looked old and slow.  The Dallas Mavericks, the team who went on to win the '11 title, were not a young team, so exposing the Lakers in this way spoke volumes beyond the actual embarrassment of the sweep.

As the summer of 2011 turned into lockout summer, with NBA players barnstorming across the country playing in pick up games, the Lakers made the first of several mistakes when Jim Buss decided to fire a number of important team support personnel, including  assistant general manager Ronnie Lester, who had been with the club for 24 years.  As Lester was quoted as saying at the time, "You think of the Lakers and you think they are a great organization. But if you work inside the organization, it's only a perception of being a great organization. It's probably not a great organization, because great organizations don't treat their personnel like they've done."

Great franchises not only have great people on the court and in the coach's chair, but they also have top notch support staff who work behind the scenes spread throughout the organization.  Well, at least this was the case during the reign of Jerry Buss.  Jim Buss, like George Bush 43, seemed as though he was now calling on a "higher power" when making decisions that looked like the undoing of his father's handiwork.

Buss then hired Mike Brown to take over for Phil Jackson.   While no one could realistically replace the Zen Master, Brown was always an odd choice to run a franchise with the history and magnitude of the Lakers.  Brown never seemed to have the proper disposition to run the Hollywood blockbuster of a franchise that is the Los Angeles Lakers.  He only lasted a season and five games into a second before figuring in the third fastest coach change in NBA history.  While Brown was never a good fit, he deserved better treatment, especially when one considers his inferior "seven seconds or less" replacement Mike D'Antoni.

Jim Buss fumbled the Brown hire, fumbled the firing, fumbled in the communication with Phil Jackson and then fumbled again with the D'Antoni coaching hire.  Excuse me while I mix metaphors here but Jim Buss has put the ball on the ground more times than a Nebraska fumblerooski.

Many Lakers' fans point to the aborted Chris Paul trade last year as reason for the team's struggles.  After the protracted lock out where small market franchises were complaining about being at a competitive disadvantage, there was no way the league could allow a trade that would have surely benefited the Lakers immensely, not as long as the league's twenty-nine other owners were subsidizing the New Orleans franchise.  Chris Paul, as it turns out, is a powerful man.  While the aborted trade helped sink the Lakers, it concurrently made the Clippers a title contender.

The Lakers and their fans have won so much that like the GOP they became entitled, assuming that some new superstar was always going to come along to prolong their dynasty.  Yet the long view of sports suggests that every team's fortunes ebb and flow.  No one wins forever, nor does any one team enjoy only good fortune.  As Kurt Blow once said, "these are the breaks." 

Yet the fun doesn't stop with the coaching carousel or the post aborted trade angst. The Lakers, who were again exposed as old and more out of touch than Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign in losing to OKC in the 2012 playoffs, decided to sign a petulant man-child who was coming off of back surgery and an aging point guard who had seen better days as a way of doubling down on their entitlement. In spite of Kobe's numbers, it should be obvious to any objective onlooker that his production against the better teams in the playoffs is no longer enough to carry his squad.  So just adding stars to a spotty roster was never going to make any difference.

When the petulant man-child with his free shooting woes didn't immediately gel with the team's resident Don Diva and the aging point guard struggled to even get on the floor, things went from bad to worse.  Recently it is said that the petulant man-child was supposedly confronted by the team's aging superstar and resident grande dame.  The petulant man-child demurred.  The thought of Kobe Bryant verbally punkin' an NBA player of Dwight's caliber is still hard to imagine, but we are talking about a petulant man-child after all.

The Lakers are done for all intents and purposes.  As Kobe piles up stats for the record books on his way to a retirement that certainly is sooner than later at this point, the team faces some dark days ahead.  One of the reasons that the Lakers have been so good for so long has been the presence of Jerry Buss.  Yet as the son takes over for his father, making one bad decision after another, people shouldn't expect the same success that has defined the Lakers for so long to continue.  You can hire and fire coaches, sign, trade, and cut players, but if the man who really calls the shots doesn't know his ass from a hole in the defense then it is all for naught.

During Michael Jordan's reign in the 1990s, Chicago Bulls GM Jerry "Crumbs" Krause was famous for suggesting that players don't championships, organizations do. Considering that the Bulls have nary a title without Michael Jordan,  Crumbs was wrong.  However when one considers that the Lakers have been the most dominant franchise in the NBA since the 80s, a span that has seen four of the best players in NBA history-Kareem, Magic, Shaq, and Kobe-at the forefront of teams that won titles, Crumbs' assessment celebrating the organization would now seem to apply.  Though Lakers' fans have become accustomed to winning, the absence of names like Jerry Buss, Jerry West, and Phil Jackson suggest that it would be wise for these fans to disabuse themselves of such lofty notions going forward. 

Jan 13, 2013

One in Ten Thousand ("The Extraordinary Nigga")

                         I ain't no ordinary nigga/look around this ain't what ordinary gets 
                        you/extraordinary figures/I'm an extra-ordinary nigga.   

                                                               Jay-Z, Say Hello

There are many gems of knowledge embedded in Django Unchained.  Though this film has prompted a larger public discussion, much of this discussion has been uninformed at best.  Haters harp on, but what are they really hatin' about?  I have yet to run across a critique of the film that does anything other than regurgitate tired, old, irrelevant handkerchief-head laments.  This comment from jack-leg racial huckster Tavis Smiley typifies the unenlightened drivel that has circulated in regards to this film.  Though Smiley has not seen Django Unchained he feels quite comfortable dismissing it, stating  "I refuse to see it. I’m not going to pay to see it. But I’ve read the screenplay, and I have 25 family members and friends who have seen it, and have had thousands of conversations about this movie, so I can tell you frame by frame what happens."

First of all, Smiley doesn't have to pay to see the film.  A public figure like Smiley would not have a problem getting an invitation to a private screening or obtaining an industry "screener" of the film. He's puckered up to enough of Hollywood on his talk show to assure such access, but he doesn't say this.  He does make it a monetary issue however.  Smiley seldom does an interview without name dropping or engaging in passive aggressive attempts to let the world know how much money he has. When one considers some of the dubious corporate relationships that Smiley has engaged in over the years, it's fair to assume that money is not an issue.  Or at least it shouldn't be.  Maybe he's short?

Beyond this, reading a screenplay is not the same as watching the finished product on the screen.  The "25 family members and friends" he mentions might offer their own subjective memories of seeing the film, but the inconsistent recollections of others is not the same as seeing for oneself.  No, sorry Tavis, you can't tell anyone "frame by frame what happens" if you haven't seen the film.  You can comment on other people's unreliable memory about a film you haven't seen, but this is not commenting on the film.  Don't get it twisted.  But Smiley and others like him aren't interested in an intelligent discourse they are interested in pushing their own imbecilic dogma. The restrictive world that these zealous reactionaries live in is one where The Taliban would most certainly be comfortable. 

Every since the days of Blaxploitation, haters like Lerone Bennett, editor of Ebony, and Junius Griffin, head of Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP, have complained about larger-than-life empowered black male imagery on screen.  The hateration that began during this time continued through the emergence of hip hop and the subsequent evolution of gangsta cinema in the 90s. Other echoes of this hateration could also be heard, for example, amongst the rampant naysayers as they gnashed their teeth during the triumphant reign of Jay-Z and Kanye's Watch The Throne in 2011, the landmark album that signaled the full maturation of hip hop's "extraordinary nigga" ethos. Such toxic hateration lingers, polluting the air of cultural discourse to this very day.

Much of the tepid criticism directed towards Django Unchained operates in the same vein.  (Forgive me, but I'm reluctant to continue naming names, as it were, for fear of giving these charlatans more light than they've already received.  As Mom Dukes used to say, " a hurt dog will holla," so when you haters start screaming, the world will know who you are.)  These would-be critics see no value in the swagger of cool defiance that has infused American culture since the days of legendary boxer Jack Johnson.  Thus they don't understand the revolutionary potential represented by Django.

Many of these haters, so-called black intellectuals and other cultural gatekeepers, prefer victimization.  They like their heroes to be weak.  They seek sympathy through guilt.  True empowerment is not on their agenda.  The haters would rather sit in their lil' group-think bubbles and complain about how their collective feelings are being hurt than embrace what NWA once defined as "the strength of street knowledge."  Yes there are those, believe it or not, who would rather see Precious steal a buck of chicken than see Django enact righteous revenge on his oppressors.

Allow me to polish one of those gems of knowledge that I referenced earlier...

A recurring motif in Django Unchained is the metaphor of "one in ten thousand."  This is what Django comes to represents, the exception to the rule, "the extraordinary nigga."  The history of the African-American struggle in this country has often been defined as a group struggle.  The only problem with this is that America imagines itself as a land of individual opportunity.  The inherent conflict is one where a group is trying to succeed in a game designed for individuals.  Thus, the group tends to remain frustrated, though individuals may have broken through.  Those individuals who have embraced the unfortunate reality of this unique challenge have tended to be the ones to rise above the limitations. In many cases, those who have embraced this individual mandate have transformed the culture in the process.  Yet in so doing, these same individuals have often rubbed up against the myopic views of their own people who see the rise of a uniquely empowered individual as a threat to their own comfortable feeling of irrelevant complacency.  The thinking is, it's better for all of us to suffer than for a few of us to thrive.

Jack Johnson, the patron saint of black male defiance, was a threat to white society sure, but he had a large share of black haters to contend with as well.  Johnson's choices in his personal life, his desire to be a man truly free from the limitations of both white and black restrictions makes him a figure difficult to embrace for many.  His attitude alone though makes him significant.  Johnson introduced the concept of "not givin' a fuck" to the American consciousness.  This concept would evolve and come to define a philosophy, while informing a range of future rebellious sorts going forward.  Cats like Bird, Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Pryor are descendants of this tradition.  Malcolm X represents the tradition's imminent philosopher, figures like Frantz Fanon, Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton, it's shining literary lights.  Hip hop is in many ways founded upon this very tradition.  Fictional characters from Youngblood Priest in Super Fly to Django demonstrate the influences of this tradition in popular culture.

The rare individual who has the willingness to go against the grain, to chart one's own path, to defy the expectation of haters whoever they may be, is what defines the extraordinary nigga.  This is about using whatever is available to the individual in question as a way of transforming the world around them.  Though the group may talk about it, the individual must be about it.  This is the sort of inspiration that I found articulated in Django Unchained.

 When Calvin Candie says to Django, "You'll hafta excuse Mr. Stonesipher's slack jawed gaze. He ain't never seen a nigger like you ever in his life....nor have I" he speaks to the shock and awe that often results when bold individuals dare to exist outside their prescribed place.  Yes, this is the same shock that momentarily paralyzed those who had never seen "a nigger on a horse."  This assertive individuality has often left a lot of shook ones in its wake.

One of the purposes of art is to help us imagine newly creative ways of seeing the world; past, present, and future.   Provoking haters is a time honored tradition in and of itself.  The dismissive response to Django Unchained from haters of all stripes is consistent with the film's profound message.  The emergence of the extraordinary nigga guarantees a negative response from those more comfortable with the status quo. Such a representation would never be roundly popular as it's too threatening.  Those who are truly hip get it regardless of race, while a rainbow coalition of squares are left to choke on their own vomit. The film's value lies in its ability to provoke the masses, while flattering those who remain committed, trying to keep it real, compared to what.

Sleep on, haters.  Get your Rip Van Winkle on, while the world continues to pass you by.