Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Robertson’

Threes

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

InTheRealmsOfGold-SmuinBallet2

In the Realms of Gold (Smuin Ballet © 2012 David Jouris/Motion Pictures)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“If you’re a basketball player, you’ve got to shoot.” Oscar Robertson

I recently took up shooting hoops again at nearby Mendocino K-8 School after nearly two years away from the courts. Sadly, I found four of the six hoops adorned with the tattered remnants of their nets and the other two nets verging on dissolution. Shooting hoops on a rim without a viable net is deeply unsatisfying and actually punishes the shooter for success since a ball tossed through a hoop without a net will frequently bounce faraway rather than drop down conveniently in front of the successful shooter.

And so for selfish reasons, but also for the good of our local youth, I went to the school office the next morning with four new nets and presented them to a friendly volunteer who said she would give them to the principal, which she did. The next day I received a phone call from the school principal and she thanked me profusely for the nets. I told her the nets only cost three dollars each, that I would be happy to buy more as necessary, and that I would have put the nets up myself but had no easy way to get a ladder to the courts. She assured me that she would have her maintenance people take care of the situation, and they did.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

One hears varying accounts of the financial state of our public school system, state and local, with the latest rumors suggesting that things are somewhat better this year than they were the previous four years following the economic meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent takeover of the federal government by the supranational Ponzi scheme operators who are now permanently in charge. However, there is still apparently nothing in the budget to cover the purchase of new nets for the school’s basketball hoops.

What makes this especially poignant and silly to me is that every time I go to shoot hoops at the pragmatically named Mendocino K-8 School, which I think we should rename Little Lake Lyceum, the playground is heaped (no exaggeration) with expensive clothing discarded daily by students in the heat of play and left for scavengers and pissed off parents to deal with when the pampered children return home sans jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and backpacks.

Indeed, on a recent weekend visit to the courts to shoot hoops and admire the new nets adorning the rims, I watched a mother and her two children shopping for clothes by carefully assessing each of the thirty-some items of clothing strewn about the playground. In the end, they chose two sweaters and a brand new rain jacket for the youngest child, a 49ers sweatshirt, a down vest, and a brand new backpack for the oldest child, and those kids were thrilled with their new gear. Are these people thieves? Nay. Many of those items of clothing had been on the playground for several days and were destined for the garbage or the Salvation Army. The least expensive of the many discarded items cost more than six brand new nets for the basketball hoops, hence the poignancy of the situation.

“You look at today, it’s a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either a three-point shot or a dunk.” Oscar Robertson

I published my first novel Inside Moves in 1978, the year before the NBA (National Basketball Association) introduced the three-point basket in imitation of the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association). Not much would have changed in my novel had my hero’s long range shots been three-pointers, since basketball is merely background to the drama, but the meteoric rise of an unknown little man might have seemed more plausible in the three-point era than in the previous age of two points per basket.

So last week I was shooting hoops at Little Lake Lyceum shortly after 3:30, before which interlopers are not allowed to use the courts, and I was joined by four Eighth Grade boys who asked if they might shoot around with me since they did not have access to school basketballs after school hours, which at first struck me as more poignant silliness, but then made perfect sense when I considered the aforementioned discarded clothing all over the playground. Having completed my very slow routine of shooting baskets to help me get back in minimal aerobic shape, I told the boys they were welcome to join me, and we proceeded to take turns shooting baskets.

To my bemusement, none of these lads ever took a shot unless he was behind the three-point line painted on the asphalt, twenty-some feet from the hoop. When it was my turn to shoot, I shot from close and not so close and occasionally from afar, but these fourteen-year-olds (they told me their ages) never took a single shot that wasn’t a three-pointer. And they almost never made a basket. We played together for thirty minutes. Each of the four well-coordinated boys, all of them on the Little Lake Lyceum basketball team, took upwards of twenty-five shots, and cumulatively they made a grand total of three baskets.

As an experiment, I asked them to shoot from closer range and they proved to be entirely incapable of making anything other than a layup, and even those very close-in shots were difficult for them. I then asked why they only shot three-pointers and they looked at me as if I had asked why they wore clothing or if they played video games. Why, they suggested (and I paraphrase and delete dozens of likes and y’knows) would a reasonable person bother to shoot and probably miss a two-point shot when he might just as well shoot and probably miss a three-point shot?

“You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.” Meryl Streep

Try as I might, I can’t seem to separate the goofy incompetence of those Little Lake Lyceum hoopsters and the piles of discarded clothing on the playground of that esteemed institute of lower learning. Extrapolating further, I can’t separate those incompetent hoopsters and the discarded clothing from my brother telling me that there are now thousands of job openings in the IT (Internet Technology) field in San Francisco for which there are almost no qualified Americans, making it necessary for American companies to continue flying in thousands of well-qualified people from India, Russia, China, and other places where the children most definitely do not discard their brand new clothes on playgrounds.

“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” John Hagee

We recently attended a play hereabouts, and because the play was so badly written and I couldn’t convince Marcia to flee with me at intermission, once I got over my dismay at having to sit through yet another award-winning piece of junk, I decided to use the time to study how the various actors dealt with having to recite such garbage. And it was fascinating to see how the one really masterful actor in the show chose to speak her lines sotto voce (because the words themselves were so ill-conceived) and how she almost-but-not-quite transcended the putrid script with her subtle physical movements and telling facial expressions, while the other actors lacked the skill (and direction) to do anything other than stand around in stiff discomfort and raise their voices, as if they thought shitty writing might be improved by shouting.

And I couldn’t help but relate the crappiness of the play and the shortage of masterful acting to those goofy incompetent hoopsters and those piles of perfectly good discarded clothing on the playground at Little Lake Lyceum and the tragic incompetence of the people hired to build the website for the new Big Pharma National Healthcare Debacle and the ongoing and worsening disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and our collective inability to do anything about the vast overriding and killing mediocrity that seems more and more a sure bet to render our beautiful planet uninhabitable.

Then yesterday Marcia and I attended a fantastic concert at Preston Hall, a pianist and cellist playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev—brilliant players playing the works of genius composers. And as a result of listening to that magnificent music, I felt a little more hopeful than entirely hopeless, an illusion, perhaps, but also a relief to be reminded that humans are not inherently mediocre and incompetent. For though I don’t know this to be true, I would bet good money that neither of those brilliant musicians we heard, had they chosen to pursue careers in basketball rather than music, would have only shot threes on their long roads to mastery.

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.