Tweeners

"I am not professional, but I love basketball,
The squeaking of the sneakers, the echo in the hall."
               --Spearhead, "People in tha Middle," from Home (1994) 

Years ago, when Waffle O'Cheeseman and Torrid Elmo Burnadorm (Hi, Waff!  Hi, Elmo!) introduced me to a CD called Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury, I didn't quite know what to think, but I was intrigued.  The name of the band--the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy--suggested a peculiar mix of swagger, literacy, and self-awareness, and the music itself was a combination of industrial noise, hip-hop rhythms, and political commentary that wouldn't have been one bit out of place on a Gil Scott-Heron album.  The lyrics cited the Dead Kennedys, Salman Rushdie, and Billy Bragg.  On a couple of songs, the lead vocalist actually sang, and moreover, there were moments when he revealed things that are usually carefully concealed on a hip-hop record: vulnerability and self-doubt. 

This was my introduction to the work of Michael Franti.  Before I heard the Heroes, I'd found a few hip hop albums that I enjoyed--De La Soul's Three Feet High and Rising, A Tribe Called Quest's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, mainly--and some choice singles such as Young MC's irresistible pop confection "Bust a Move" and Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full," but I couldn't really point to a rap record that I found artistically satisfying.  They were often fun, sometimes extremely clever and/or technically fascinating, but they didn't hit me where I lived.  Even the critically lauded Public Enemy albums I heard all through the Eighties had left me unmoved, even as I respected Chuck D's talent; I just didn't want to listen to him all that much.  As far as hip hop went, I was obviously too something or not something else enough.

Franti changed that.  Politically aware, keenly intelligent, and lyrically inventive, he also had something else that appealed to me more than any rapper I'd heard before:  a rhetorical stance I respected.  As David Foster Wallace points out in his brilliant essay "Authority and American Usage" (collected in Consider the Lobster), the approach taken by any authority has a great deal to do with how well that authority is accepted.  In Wallace's case, he's discussing lexicography, and the reasons why neither an all-accepting descriptivism nor an orthodox prescriptivism is an entirely satisfactory stance on which to base a dictionary.

He could be talking about hip hop, though.  Or heavy metal.  Or pretty much any form of pop music where the front man tells us he is The Authority.  I don't much like it when a pop singer tells me what to do.  I also don't much like it when a pop singer whines overmuch, which explains why, despite his lyrical gifts, I've never been able to listen to Morrissey for more than a few minutes without just wanting to smack him.  I don't want lyrics that hand down rulings from the bench any more than I want lyrics that deny the singer's responsibility for taking up my time.  I want lyrics that treat me as the judge; I want him to convince me that he deserves my attention.  The best approach for this, in my experience, is to treat me as an equal: offer me sympathy, offer me wit, offer me a new perspective, but don't pretend you know absolutely everything (which makes me unlikely to believe you even when you DO know what you're talking about), and don't pretend you know absolutely nothing (which makes me unlikely to believe you about anything).

Michael Franti walks betweens the horns of that rhetorical dilemma.  He asks me for respect and offers me reasons why I might extend it, as well as reasons why I might not.  By honestly doubting his own claim to authority, he makes it that much more likely that I will recognize his claim.

All of which explains why I like Antawn Jamison so much.

It's not just that Jamison plays basketball, and that Franti's a hoops fan.  In fact, on his first album with his current band, Spearhead, he performed a wonderful song about African-American history cast in the form of a musing on the 1992 US Men's Olympic hoops squad, called of course "Dream Team."  Franti imagines a whole slew of historical/political figures taking the court instead of Mike and Magic; my favorite image is either Marcus Garvey taking Charles Barkley's power forward spot or Angela Davis posting up, lowering her shoulder, and bringing down the backboard.

But even though Jamison spent a few years playing in Franti's home in the Bay Area, that's not why I like him.  I like him because (work with me here) of his rhetorical style of basketball.

Look, I'm a UNC fan, and I think about the Tar Heels too much, but there is a point here, and it's sort of analogous to my point about hip hop and Wallace's point about lexicography.  I was in the same freshman class with one of the most beloved Tar Heels of all, Michael Jordan.  I saw him play every time the Heels ever took the court at Carmichael Auditorium.  Even in the early days he was astonishing--not just because of his size, his athleticism, or his incredible jumping ability, but because he dictated what would happen on the court.  He was The Authority.  His talent, his competitiveness, his will power would not bow to anyone else.  I'm glad he was on my favorite team, make no mistake, but I can't really connect to a player who comes at the game from such a singular perspective.

By contrast, many UNC fans love the last man off the bench, such as Dewey "Biscuits" Burke, whose appearances were usually limited to garbage time, when the main issue to be settled was whether the Heels would score 100 points and thereby render ticket-holders eligible for a free biscuit at Time Out.  I deeply respect these scrappy, hard-nosed kids who spend untold hours in practice, helping the starters hone their games, and work their asses off for four years in exchange for little more than the right to throw up a few last-minute jumpers against overmatched foes.  At the same time, their contributions--however fundamentally sound, however noble, however necessary--simply aren't as important to the game or as aesthetically pleasing as the contributions of the players in the regular rotation.  I'll never in my life say a bad word about Woody Coley, but his game could simply never demand my attention.

Antawn's game, though, could make me watch in awe.  OK, granted, he's no George Lynch on defense.  But on offense, he takes the talent he has and uses it to make the maximum possible contribution in a way that actually calls attention to his limitations.  Jamison was the classic "tweener" coming out of school, a college power forward whose size would force him out to the perimeter in the pros.  At UNC, he didn't really have a jump shot.  What he had was a nose for the ball and the quickest release of anyone not named Dan Marino.  If he jumped up for a rebound, he would grab the ball in shooting position and immediately pop it back up; the grab, the cock, and the release would all take place simultaneously at the apex of his jump.  It was a remarkable thing, made all the more remarkable to me by what it said about Jamison as a player: "If I bring this thing down, I'm probably not big and strong enough to bring it back up again."  It was a physical expression of doubt, far from the swagger of a Jordan, even as it was a display of talent that was light-years away from the scrappiness of a Burke.

In my essay "Seventeen Things I Learned from Dean Smith," I quoted Cicero: "If you aspire to the highest place it is no disgrace to stop at the second, or even the third."  I believe that Franti and Jamison, recognize that they may not be the best there is at what they do, but by recognizing that fact, they help make themselves the best they can be.  And there is something appealing, even beautiful, about watching a talented person do something as best he can--imperfections and all.

The Greek mathematician-astronomer-librarian-geographer-poet Eratosthenes was something of a tweener, too.  In fact, he was nicknamed "Beta" by his contemporaries because he was second-best at everything he tried, without ever being best at anything.  As a generalist myself, I naturally find that approach to life intriguing, but it's worth noting that "Beta" was in fact pretty darned good at such things as finding prime numbers and measuring the circumference of the Earth using only a couple of shadows.  Does that mean he could lead a band or score in traffic?  I wouldn't put it past him. 

And if Michael Franti and Antawn Jamison ever decide to collaborate on a book of poetry, I for one am likely to pick it up.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 18, 2007 8:09 PM.

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