Friday, February 27, 2009

"Straight Grillin': Your Typical Nerd's Study Guide"

Joshua "OD" Mitchell, my good friend and current roommate at Howard University, walked into our dorm room one night with negative body language and a wearied look of his face. Josh was returning from his group study session with his classmates, and was presently talking to someone on his cell phone. After he hung up, I moved in to assess the situation.

“Yo, Josh…what’s up bro?”
“Mike, hey, I’m all right man…(looks down)…just getting back from this study session with my group.”
“How’d it go?”
(Josh lets out audible sigh…then displays a nervous smile)
“Do you think you’ll be ready for the big test tomorrow dude?”

At this moment, Josh begins to tell me about the study session. While he faithfully tried to talk positively about the experience, I surmised that our hero was leaving out some important story trivia. So, I confronted him.

“So, how solid are those people that you study with, anyway?”
(Josh lets out second long sigh)
“They’re okay.” (Josh then displays a noticeable wince)

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s studying with crappy group study partners. These people almost always arrive after the designated meeting time, complain about their extenuating problems, and bring unnecessary chaos to the knowledge circle. A bad study partner is a parasitic leech in their pursuit of answers – choosing only to siphon answers from the people that actually took the time to study beforehand. I like to call it “audible intellectual plagiarism”.

Hey, bad study partners of the world – we know who you are. Don’t try to hide. Stop giving the intellectual art of the study group a bad rap.

Honestly, a bad group study partner is one step above that person who emergency calls/texts you right before bed to ask you to answer every single possible question before the test. (You know what I’m talking about.)

I decided to loosen Josh up by outlining for him my “personal guide to successful studying.” Once I finished deconstructing my study routine for him in enjoyable but verbose Mike Benjamin fashion, I realized that sharing my tenets of triumph with my Points Off Turnovers blog crew wouldn’t hurt. It’s an welcome intermission from the “Mo’ Better Hoops” series for me…and a foolproof study guide for you. In science, they would call this a “mutualistic relationship.”

(See how I’m dropping that science on you? And just when you thought all English majors would become high school teachers like Ben Stein…)

Without further ado, here’s Mike’s Personal Guide to Successful Studying!

Take a good look at this burger. Doesn’t it look delicious? Don’t you just want to print a copy of it from your printer and stick it to some empty wall in your room? Or better yet, why not just go ahead and eat the paper? Come on…you know you want tooooooo…

Okay, stop ogling this burger like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. I don’t want to see you guys react to this entrĂ©e like those girls from the Burger King commercials did. It’s just food people. You’ll be hungry again later.

For those of you that have been reading my stuff for a while now, you know I love using analogies in my writing. When I heard that they eliminated the analogy section from the SAT’s, I wept secretly while watching the Diary of Anne Frank marathon on AMC.

Reading a Mike Benjamin column without an awesome analogy is like eating a bowl of Corn Flakes cereal without milk. Sure, you can do it, but why would you put yourself through the torture? In order to understand my study routine, I’ll be using the recurring analogy of this hamburger to stimulate your senses and provide you greater understanding.

So, let’s dig in!

STEP 1: Make sure you’ve got the bread.
As any Texas-born American with clogged arteries can tell you, it’s impossible to make a great cheeseburger without bread. (For them, preferably Texas Toast) While providing additional taste, this staple food also serves a multitude of functions within burger construction:

First, the bread traps the burger’s ingredients (lettuce, onions, red meat, and ketchup) within a designated surface area. Similarly, your professor must announce your test at least a week prior to the given date and outline the parameters of the examination at this point-in-time. As a typical college student, your primary job is to attend your class at the scheduled time. If you do this, you will probably receive this information without issue. Just as I’d bet that every person born in Houston knows that red meat needs bread in order to be considered a burger, I’d gather that 80-99% of college students know how to gain this required test information from the average college professor. (Yes, I’m assuming that your professor’s not a complete jerk.)

However, there’s one miniscule sandwich detail that needs to be taken into account before moving forward with the burger construction process. Remember, we’re going for the best possible cheeseburger. Hereby, I claim that the best cheeseburger bread is always lightly toasted. Don’t you hate it when the bread gets stuck to the roof of your mouth, or when your fingers sink in the foamy part of the bread? I sure do. The toasted surface reinforces the bread, and gives it more durability and strength. Plus, this allows the individual to stack even more condiments of their choosing!

Before the professor tries to segue test discussion into further class information, make sure to drain as much additional test information from them as humanely possible. I’d try to limit the scope of their test (How many chapters will the test cover?), isolate main ideas that were covered (Will anatomy and physiology be on the test?), and by all means…keep them from adding extra junk to the exam (Will today’s lecture also be on the test? Because I don’t think that gives me enough time to study!) This also holds the professor to an unwritten contract with the class, a contract he/she can easily break if you go to ask these same questions during their office hours. Sometimes, the 5-10 minutes you spend hawking your teachers for answers have a huge pay off on test day.

(Side Note: For the record, the people who take the time to ask these sorts of questions are probably the people you need to study with. So go ahead and flirt your way into their study group. We like it when our egos are stroked a bit.)

STEP 2: Cook the meat.
This step, obviously, is the most important part of the burger construction process. When I first tried to grill hamburgers, I placed the meat in the middle of the frying pan, left it there until it turned brown, tossed it onto my (untoasted) bread and proceeded to bite it hastily. At that moment, I tasted one of the most horrid tastes known to man.

Burger blood.

My uncle Joe is the grill expert in our family. No, it isn’t because my aunt Darlene can’t handle the grill (in all honesty, she might be better than my uncle) but we’ll never, ever know. Why? Because my uncle loves to grill.

I learned my grilling ways from watching my uncle as a kid. Uncle Joe prides himself on grilling the best burgers for our family. He’s the guy that performs grill-duty at big parties. Trust, my Dad’s good on the grill, but my uncle is great. Here are the directions I learned by watching him grill burger meat (minus, his top secrets and fancy Uncle-grilling moves, of course):

First, thaw out the ground beef. Honestly, it’s not super-crucial to thaw out the meat prior to grilling, but it helps to speed up the grilling process. While the meat sits on the kitchen counter, go ahead and multitask. Move your clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. Beat your kid brother in NBA 2K9. Check your Facebook account…again.

In regards to studying, now’s the time for you to set up time with your study buddies. After class, organize a meeting time to review the information before the test. I like to make that review day the day before the test to give me time to show up prepared and dually serves as collective motivation for the group to straight up murder the test on the next day.

Second, set up your cooking area. Begin to preheat the frying pan (indoors) or the grill (outdoors). Line up all necessary utensils. Clear the area of any unnecessary protuberances and clutter. Similarly, I like to take the first full day (of a week-long study process) to just hang out, have fun, and enjoy myself. On the afternoon of the second day, I start to knock off any annoying lesser assignments and extraneous errands that will get in the way of the study process. In addition, my dad always taught me to set up my workstation in advance. For a lengthy paper assignment, I like to simply open up Microsoft Word and type in my heading. Seriously. To me, there’s nothing more intimidating than opening up a Word Document and seeing that damned black cursor flash on a blank white screen. (That needs to be my yearbook quote)

Third, pray. Seek God’s face. Before touching the meat, pray that the people who eat the cheeseburgers will enjoy them immensely and not get sick. Before you study, pray that your teacher won’t throw any curveballs on the test, that you get a great seat in the classroom on test day, that your pen doesn’t run out of ink, that your nose isn’t running so you don’t have to snort and use your shirt as a boogey-catching device (yes, this happened to me on my Senior Comprehensive Exam), etc, etc.

Fourth, divide the ground beef into patties and place them on the grill. When you first touch the information, try to divide your test into set topics or concepts. Hey look, your study task is instantly less scary! YEA! This makes the knowledge easier to handle and retain. That’s why Leonardo is always a better fighting Ninja Turtle than Donatello (swords are wayyy easier to handle than a bo staff).

Five, flip the patties carefully and poke with a fork. This allows all of the burger blood runs out of the pattie to ensure maximum cookage. Don’t poke it too much though, because you don’t want to dry the meat out. In relation to your study, make sure to find all of your test topics in the textbook (flipping) and translate the words into a language that you understand. My friend Daniel Gilmer (currently a Howard Hughes Research Fellow) used to write acrostic poems with his notes. (Yup, a non-English major using English major

This entire process should carry you right to the group review day.

STEP 3: Add the cheese.
We’re almost done cooking the burger! But don’t forget…we’re making a cheeseburger! We’ve got to add the cheese to give it a chance to melt atop our browned burger meat. Before you meet with your study group, I’d suggest going through all of the tedious notes and work you’ve done. Here’s the perfect time to create flash cards or write a clean copy for better understanding.

STEP 4: When cheese melts, put cooked burger on bread.
Annnnnnd, we’re done here. Tell your kid brother to get off the sticks and set the table. By the way, look at the time! Let’s go meet up with your study partners!

STEP 5: Add lettuce.
Allow me to copy and paste exactly what I said in Step 2-1 about study the purpose of an intellectual study group (Heh, 2-1…it’s like the name of a level in Super Mario 3):

“I like to make that review day the day before the test to give me time to show up prepared and dually serves as collective motivation for the group to straight up murder the test on the next day.”

Isn’t that exactly what you did before getting to the study group? Awesome!

The purpose of the intellectual study group is three-fold. Study group members should reinforce each other’s already studied knowledge, fill any outstanding informational holes (lettuce covers entire bread), and should motivate other group partners “to straight up murder” the test on the next day. The study session should take around 1 ½ to 3 hours (depending on the work load/size of the cheeseburger).

(Side Note: That’s why when dead-weight studiers are so hurtful to the study process. You end up wasting time feeding them information that you never get a chance to check to see if there are any informational holes. A dead-weight studier is like someone who hastily snatches the meat out of the freezer, zaps it in the microwave for about thirty seconds, and proceeds to shove it down their throats in a hurry. They’ve basically just eaten a raw, barely-warmed burger on soft bread without ketchup. Why the heck are you wasting your time with them?

(Oh, that’s right…it’s the hot girl from the cheerleading squad. It’s the diesel guy from the football team (yes, I know I’m over-generalizing here). It’s your good friend from your hometown. You can’t leave them hanging, can you?)

This is always a tough spot for me, because I love to help people. But in my book, they made a conscious choice (circumstances pending) to skip out on the hard work to eat your cooking. If there are extra burgers, I’m always willing to share. But if not…you’re on your own, pal. You’ve got to make the tough decision to prepare yourself for the hard test tomorrow. We can’t have you completely burned-out before seeing the test, okay?

STEP 6: Add onions.
Make sure to get a good night’s sleep. You need to exercise your brain at 100% for the test, so lack of sleep can’t be the issue here. When you hear the ringtone or text chime of your emergency panic study buddy (the guy who missed the session), hit ignore and roll over. Trust me, it’s just better that way.

STEP 7: Add ketchup.

Wake up at least an hour before the test to eat a good breakfast. Go for light carbohydrates (crossiants) and nutritious choices. But don’t eat anything that may lead to the hazardous “afternoon lull” (aka “the itis”).

STEP 8: Add a trace of salt and pepper.
This is my personal step for optimum deliciousness, one that I picked up from my sister and the fast food Godsend – Checkers. I propose that a trace of salt and pepper adds a certain extra kick to the whole concoction. Similarly, I bring an couple of extra pens/pencils to the test site to avoid the disastrous ink failure/pencil break situation (explained in 2-3).

If you prepared correctly, your test preparation (burger) should match up perfectly to the test paper (empty stomach) of your professor. However, some professors just don’t know how to cook up a test (and I’m not telling them). But more often than not, some professors don’t want to make the test unbearable for the median of the class (bell curve theory). This means that you’ve over-studied for the exam (five burgers for four people) and there’s extra information that you didn’t even need!

Wait, don’t toss that out! There’s plenty of room in your fridge (brain) for leftovers!

Was that a fun ride? Lemme know what you thought in the comments!

(Now, I’m getting kind of hungry...GOTTA EAT!)

Michael A. Benjamin, II is a Senior English major at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at Peace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Mo’ Better Hoops”: M.J.’s Epic Transcendence of the Game

By all accounts, Michael Jeffrey Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time.

I’d like to pretend that depicting Michael Jordan in the context of this series was a cinch. I’d like to believe that I’ve imbedded enough hyperlinks for my reader to understand and embrace the grandeur of the game’s greatest ambassador. I’d like to declare my ability to instantly summarize the impact of “His Airness” in this brief affidavit to the rooftops of my dorm at Howard University. However, that proclamation would be a bold-faced lie.

Truth be told, I’ve been tinkering with this portion of my “form/function” theory since its inception. I wondered aloud, seeking to figure out a correct way to illustrate Jordan in the scope of my work. How could I capture M.J.’s excellence, mastery, and artistry in a way that would bring further understanding to the basketball cavalcade? After much deliberation, I realized that answering this question in fullness is moot. To me, deconstructing Michael Jordan is as daunting a task as summarizing the Black Arts Movement in a paragraph, defining John Coltrane for an encyclopedia, or making meaning of Rakim’s lyrical content for a Time Magazine editorial. I apologize in advance for failing to fully illustrate the significance of Michael Jordan.

But as my dad once told me, the best way to devour an entire salami is by eating it one slice at a time. The only way for basketball intellectuals to gain some semblance of understanding in regards to Michael Jordan’s career is through continuous discourse. A writer, no matter how gifted, will possess all the answers. I invite everyone to join me in this rhythmic dance, to add your opinion to existing rhetoric. Lastly, before I begin analyzing M.J.’s game, I submit that the intricate events of our superstar’s life are not all coincidental. I assert that God had a plan for Michael Jordan’s life – like He does for every single life on the planet – and that the amazing correlations that I will make within this discussion echo this belief. Even the best theorists and thinkers of our day would agree that not all ideas can be explained with the parameters of intellectual discourse. Greatness is an idea that’s impossible to explain.

Michael Jordan was an individual birthed into a family of innovators. Michael’s mother, Deloris, worked in the banking industry and his father, James, was an equipment supervisor, allowing the Jordan family to embrace black middle-class status. While still a toddler, Michael’s parents decided to leave their Brooklyn residence and migrate southward to the state of North Carolina, beginning a trend that exists to this day. Currently, African-Americans make up nearly a quarter of North Carolina's population with the number of middle-class blacks increasing exponentially since the 1970s (Wikipedia).

Before we move on, it is of interest to note that young Michael was born in Brooklyn, NY – a dynamic metropolis of Africana basketball culture. Here, basketball was played in a way that emphasized the aesthetic qualities of the game, a free-flowing exhibition that reflected the Africana elements of black life in New York. James Jordan lived in this vibrant setting for a number of years, and undoubtedly passed some of Brooklyn’s cultural elements on to his young sons, Larry and Michael, after their move to North Carolina.

Though Michael Jordan was born in the concrete jungle of New York, he was bred in the plains of North Carolina. According to the encyclopedia, Jordan shared an intimate bond with his father, with baseball being the first love of both men. Young Michael only began playing basketball due to his idolization of his older brother Larry, “a spectacular athlete in his own right,” who cultivated young Michael’s competitive desire ( Simply put, he wanted to defeat his older brother.

In high school, Jordan attempted to transfer his game to his varsity team, but was considered too short to play for the squad (only 5’11’’ by his sophomore year). This setback unintentionally allowed Michael Jordan to begin honing the elements of his distinct game – a process that would continue on every level of his amateur and professional athletic career. Jordan played in an era before AAU programs and sponsorships, a damning product of today’s amateur athletics that stifles the aesthetic growth of children and teenagers during the very important formative years (a concept that I will discuss later on in the series). Jordan spent his sophomore summer practicing, embracing the multiplicity of his game, and beginning to strike the balance between the Africana qualities inherent in form with the functional tenets of basketball. Jordan’s early tinkering with this fusion of form and function is important to analyze in the context of Jordan’s game. Jordan’s synthesis of both basketball elements within the parameters of his game allowed him to garner measurable success on every level (NCAA and NBA championships) without compromising his game’s expressive qualities inherent in Africana. However, because Jordan would be the first player birthed from this “form/function” fusion, practice and repetition would be vital towards gaining a mastery of this intricate basketball concept.

Michael Jordan returned from his sophomore summer an entirely new basketball player. God blessed the teenager with another four inches of height (pushing M.J. to 6’3”) giving Jordan access to the varsity squad at Laney High School. The rest of his high school career is an exercise in recounting history. Michael averaged a triple-double in his senior season, gained recognition by earning a place on the prestigious McDonald’s All-American Team and was selected by the legendary coach Dean Smith to play at one of basketball’s collegiate powerhouses – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As a freshman at Howard University, I used to chill and debate sports with three good brothers from Raleigh, North Carolina – Brenden, Ellis, and James. To me, these three gents possessed a cognitive dissonance when it came to North Carolina’s basketball programs, loving one team (UNC) while hating another (Duke), a concept that I didn't fully understand. Brenden Whitted, our resident UNC basketball expert, used to always say (and I quote), “Duke will get guys drafted, but UNC creates superstars.” But why is that the case? I believe to properly analyze the greatness of UNC basketball is to begin with a case study of Dean Smith. While Coach Mike Krzyzewski and other select coaches recruited players to add to their collective legacies, Coach Dean focused initially on cultivating talent inherently present in certain individuals. Coach Dean wanted to make his basketball program a favorite for prospects seeking to evolve their games. Heck, Dean Smith was probably a secret connoisseur of Africana. Smith fought for desegregation in athletics – recruiting UNC’s first black scholarship athlete – and for equal treatment of African-Americans by local Carolina businesses. Smith adapted his style from the legendary black basketball coach John McLendon, a fellow KU alum who created the now-famous fast break offense as well as the four corners technique (which later forced the NCAA to adapt the shot clock to minimize ball control). Dean Smith understood the importance of growing free-flow talent better than any basketball coach, and realized that teaching his students to harness that talent would invariably lead to collegiate success.

To further acknowledge this point, let’s quickly compare Michael Jordan’s basketball career to that of Duke’s Johnny Dawkins. During the 1980s, one could successfully argue that Dawkins was the better player. Dawkins held the record for points scored in a career (until J.J. Redick broke it in 2006), and lead the Blue Devils to the national championship game of 1986 on the coattails of a 37-3 record. However, Dawkins became the first of many talented Africana players to have his exceptional talents marginalized for the betterment of university success. Simply put, Coach K stunted Dawkins’ basketball growth and crushed his inherent free-flow aesthetic in favor of critical acclaim for Duke’s college basketball program. Dawkins went on to become a very marginal NBA player, playing for the Spurs, Pistons, and 76ers before eventually retiring and returning to Duke as one of Coach K’s assistant basketball coaches. Arguably, Coach K is one of the first basketball coaches to siphon basketball talent in order to bolster his personal attributes – also known as the abuse of black bodies for personal gain. To any student of Africana peoples, this damning idea is one that should be easily recognizable in the context of black history.

Either knowingly or unknowingly, Michael Jordan’s alignment with UNC showed a recognition of Coach Dean’s philosophy. While the young teen may have chosen to attend the college based on its proximity to his hometown or any number of extenuating factors, his choice to attend UNC was a major factor that gave him greater leverage to master the delicate balance between free-flow and functional basketball. Fortunately for basketball fans, Jordan made the correct choice.

When Jordan arrived at UNC, he initially played second fiddle to two talented upperclassmen – James Worthy and Sam Perkins. While this slight is often seen by basketball critics as damning to Jordan’s career, this allowed young Jordan’s game to mature at a healthy rate and further master this “controlled chaotic” style of basketball, a fusion that would catapult Michael Jordan to the height of the basketball world.

(Side Note: In this thesis, the idea of “controlled chaos” is the product of a fused “form/function” basketball aesthetic. My definition of controlled chaos is the result that occurs when a basketball player has completely mastered the attributes of form and function, and can use these qualities at their discretion at a moment’s notice. Jordan was the prototypical engineer of this unique basketball quality, a quality that would take “His Airness” years of discipline and practice to fully master.)

However, some of the features of a “controlled chaos” aesthetic cannot merely be practiced…they must be performed on the biggest of stages. As I mentioned in Part 3, one such immeasurable attribute is the idea of “clutchness”. In addition, the ability to be clutch cannot be taught. An athlete either has the flair for the dramatic or will exist simply as a consummate professional or statistical sensation. (Hence, the existence of guys like “Big Shot” Robert Horry, Larry Bird, and Chauncey Billups.) By allowing Michael Jordan to take the winning shot against the Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas over his upperclassmen, Dean Smith was testing the young champion’s ability to access this unknown part of a basketball player’s aesthetic, one that only a select few individuals have possessed in the history of the game. In Roland Lazenby’s article “Michaelangelo: Portrait of a Champion”, Jordan states that this shot was a turning point in his basketball career. I agree, and add that by making this championship-winning shot as a freshman, Jordan added a lethal weapon to his already diverse arsenal. The foundation for basketball transcendence had officially been laid.

In 1984, Michael Jordan was drafted third by the struggling Chicago Bulls. While most sports pundits laugh at the fact that two teams passed on the greatest basketball player ever, I can’t be totally angry with their assessment at the time. Jordan was a swingman, a position that still hadn’t been seen by league intellectuals as one that could lead to championship success. With the first pick, the Houston Rockets selected center Hakeem Olajuwon, a member of the famous “Phi Slamma Jamma” fraternity at the nearby University of Houston, and a guy who won championships and became a great player in his own right (arguably, the best center of the 1990’s). The Portland Trailblazers selected oft-injured forward Sam Bowie because they had already taken superstar guard Clyde Drexler in the former year’s draft and had a wealth of swingmen already on their roster (Jerome Kersey, Kiki Vandeweghe, among others). The door was wide open for the Chicago franchise, and they seized the opportunity.

Upon arrival, Jordan immediately dominated the league and was voted to the All-Star game by fans in his rookie season. However, veteran players became jealous of Jordan’s rapid ascension, allegedly leading to a “freeze-out” during the first All-Star game with players refusing to pass Michael Jordan the ball. However, Jordan shrugged off the existing tension, continuing to dominate and later winning the Rookie of the Year award with ease. Jordan’s training under Coach Smith at UNC was finally beginning to pay off.

However, roadblocks were beginning to materialize. Critics argued that Jordan lacked a consistent jumper, and couldn’t make his players better. But a more glaring light shone in the form of the Detroit Pistons, who sought to limit Jordan’s effectiveness through their implementation of the “Jordan Rules”. The “Jordan Rules” was a defensive strategy where the opposition would hound Michael Jordan with two or three defenders in order to wear him down and limit his effectiveness. Basically, the Pistons were daring the other Bulls to beat them. Unfortunately, because the other Chicago players weren’t able to create their own shot, the defense was impenetrable.

After three straight losing trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls fired coach Doug Collins and replaced him with Phil Jackson, a relative unknown on the New York Knicks’ 1970’s championship teams and an amateur in regards to coaching. However, it was through Jackson’s unconventional coaching style that Jordan’s Bulls were finally able to surpass the Pistons for Eastern Conference supremacy. Phil Jackson adopted the “triangle offense”, a system devised by Tex Winter to maximize the efficiency of all players on the court. The offense provided easy opportunities for players to score while dually allowing Jordan to take charge when necessary.

As they say, the rest is history. The Bulls overcame their archrival Pistons and went on to “three-peat” as NBA champions prior to Jordan’s retirement in 1994. When M.J. returned after this basketball sabbatical, the Bulls picked up where they left off, winning a record-setting 70 games in the 1996-1997 season. After finishing the second “three-peat” with his signature jumper over Utah’s Brian Russell, M.J.’s transcendence was complete. Jordan had finally mastered the fusion of form and function in his game, allowing our hero to exhibit this “controlled chaos” at his convenience. His team was simply “Unbeata-Bull”, and Michael had cemented his legacy as the greatest player to ever play the game of basketball.

After Jordan’s second retirement, a question still remained unanswered. How would the basketball world respond to Jordan’s decade of domination? A new generation of prodigies used “His Airness” as their basketball template. The ripples of the Jordan decade were set to disseminate, and today’s basketball world exists as a reaction to the post-Jordan era.

Welcome to the exciting modern world of basketball.

Mike Benjamin, II

Sunday, February 15, 2009

"How NOT to Take an L on Valentine's Day"

Whenever possible, I want to bellow a hearty laugh. And thanks to my school’s daily newspaper, I didn’t have to even watch reruns of The Office to get my daily cackle.

Last week, the Hilltop (Howard University’s daily newspaper) listed their top-ten songs for Valentine’s Day 2009. I scanned the page and saw that Beyonce’s hit song “Single Ladies” appeared at the top of the list. Of course, I laughed at the obvious contradiction present and continued on with my day.

What contradiction? You know...the fact that Beyonce – a woman married to a hip-hop legend – is singing about a concept that she has absolutely no connection with anymore. In other words, a married woman is singing about being single, which is an obvious oxymoron.

The chance of a guy hearing that song and saying to himself, “Wow, maybe I should call the girl that I’m feeling now and apologize” is downright laughable. Most guys will probably hear the song, chuckle, and thank Beyonce’s vocal skills for handing them another reason NOT to come through in the clutch on “Singles Awareness Day”.

That's why very few relationships begin during the period of February 1st to the 13th.

Only the most idiotic or desperate of our kind would begin courting a girl within that time frame. Please believe…we do our research. According to the U.S. Greeting Card Association, men will spend twice as much as women on Valentine’s Day, a fact that makes us cringe. The rest of us would rather wait until February 15th to begin the courting process. If a guy’s really smart, he’ll wait until at least the 20th just to erase suspicion. We’re not as stupid as we look.

Women, before you begin to ball your fists, turn “Single Ladies” up in your rooms, and blow up your prospective man’s phone, allow me to shed a little light on life as a man. For the most part, men are very simple human beings. Men are creatures of habit, and are most comfortable existing within a set structure. For example, you might think that your man is being lazy and unproductive when he’s sitting in a ratty T-shirt and boxers watching college football on an autumn afternoon. However, if he’s the kind of guy that you even want to marry, that man planned on being lazy that day. It’s pretty much a guarantee that he woke up and thought to himself, “Hmm, what am I going to do today?” In other words, that man planned to not have a plan that day.

Out of the many great concepts my dad taught me when I was a kid; one lesson always stands out above the rest. Make sure you have a plan. “If you get in trouble with the law, at least let the idea be YOUR bad idea”, he’d say. “Don’t follow someone else’s dumb idea.” You definitely want the man of your dreams to be ambitious, to have his own plan. It’s important to allow the man to be the man within reason. No questions asked.

When it comes to dating and courtship, men relish ambiguity. Within the realm of relationship ambiguity, we maintain control. Nothing’s expected from us unless we allow it; nothing’s required unless we initiate action. Plus, for some reason, this mysteriousness is attractive to women. Why would a girl date you if she already knows everything about you? Exactly. She wouldn’t.
Men will act on their love, but not until they believe the coast is clear. That’s why most men hate Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s Day elicits a male response. Valentine’s Day forces us to prove our love on a day that all of our other brethren are also proving their love. Forcing a guy to admit his inner feelings against his wishes is like waking up a hibernating bear before spring. You just don’t want to do it. Trust me, he’ll wake up when the time’s right.

Here’s the truth about Valentine’s Day. Guys aren’t just vying for the affection of their girls. In reality, guys are competing against other guys.

Allow me the opportunity to erase the puzzled looks from your faces.

Women of the world, we’ll never admit to knowing anything about your kind, but we can merely assume this generic fact. You’ve seen at least one romantic movie. You’ve been cognizant of your surroundings during at least 15-20 Heart’s Day's. You’ve listened to at least one Jodeci album. You have a working knowledge of how our society illustrates love.

However, society’s depiction of love is inherently flawed. Let’s be serious for a second. Just because a guy decided to buy you flowers does not mean that he’s ready to marry you. I know this normally sounds stupid and dumb to consider, but on Valentine’s Day…women want to believe that a guy really cares for them. As the Boss would say, "Everybody's got a hungry heart." Somehow, an obligatory gesture becomes synonymous with deeper feelings or true consideration. In reality, we’re just trying not to come up short on the world’s biggest holiday of love. Like Ricky Bobby always says, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” And for a guy, coming in last on Valentine’s Day guarantees death to any budding relationship.

Think about it. How can you stand out and prove your love to your woman if millions of other guys are attempting to do so on the same day? You can’t. No matter how inventive or creative you think you are, there’s another guy in your sphere of influence that will top your gift. Trust me, I’m a creative writer and I’ve tried. No dice.

However, after much deliberation over breakfast with the Table of Scholars (actually, it was just me and my two friends), a theory was hatched. Our goal? Not to take an L on Valentine’s Day. The goal of every guy is to finish every Valentine’s Day personally neutral, to emerge unscathed after a long day of anticipation and obligation.

When we began our discussion, we agreed that it’s absolutely impossible for a guy to pull off a complete W on Valentine’s Day. Actually, the only way for a guy to commence taking a slight win on Valentine’s Day is to be married for 3+ years. Hopefully, the prospective guy would already be constantly showering love onto his woman, and she understands the fact that Valentine’s Day is just a relationship obligation. Also, she would have already experienced at least 3-5 heart’s days during their relationship, which further exist in her memory as proof that her man loves her. However, the guy must forever bring flowers and candy in hand when entering the house on said date. You can’t take any chances.

Without further ado, the golden rules on how NOT to take an L on Valentine’s Day:

RULE #1: Grow a spine. Make a decision and stick to it.
Before you even begin to consider denouncing your V-Day obligations, make sure that you’re seriously ready to stay committed to the task at hand. If you envision a scenario where you’ll feel terrible about not dating the girl you like on Valentine’s Day, stop, pick up the phone, and call said girl to see if she’s made plans. Nothing’s worse than hanging with a dude that keeps bringing up the “what could have been” Valentine’s Day strategy while you’re trying to enjoy life without restrictions.

RULE #2: Call your Mom.
Every guy should call their Mom on Valentine’s Day. She brought you into the world. Enough said. If you haven’t done it yet, just stop now and dial her number.

RULE #3: Keep a low profile.
One of the worst things that can happen to a guy on Valentine’s Day is to get caught doing…nothing. Why do you think I spent most of my day eating breakfast and typing this love guide? On a campus as plenteous as Howard’s with women, chances are high that you’ll run into a girl absent of plans. If you previously planned on not having plans on Valentine’s Day, you’re pretty much screwed at this point. Because men are most comfortable in structure, conversation will inevitably steer towards your plans for the night. If you have no plans and still decide not to take the prospective girl out, you’ve officially become Public Enemy #1.

RULE #4: Promise your girl an equally great future date. Or, better yet, come through beforehand.
I got this one from my boy Jordan, who I caught walking to his girlfriend’s job to give her flowers and candy before Valentine Day’s. What a great idea. Of course, I dapped him up and yelled “CLUTCH!” over and over without regard for my reputation. The "future date" or "beforehand setup" allows your well-executed plan to succeed without fear of another guy topping your idea, and you come off looking way more inventive and cool. (The TV analogy for this phenomenon would be Jeremy Piven. Jeremy Piven is a solid Hollywood actor. However, because Piven is acting with terrible guys on HBO's "Entourage", he comes off looking way better than he really is.) You’ll probably still need to come through with a card on Valentine’s Day, but at least you’ll be able to watch the NBA Slam Dunk Contest without guilt.

RULE #5: Make sure you’re not alone.
This one applies to men and women on Valentine’s Day. Girls, don’t wallow in sadness and wonder about your man’s plans during the night! Call your single friends up and head out to a restaurant, bowling alley, or some other non-romantic spot for the night. Guys, if you end up sad and alone on Valentine’s Day…you probably didn’t listen to RULE #1. Don’t allow doubt to infiltrate your mind like Chris Paul getting steals on the Russian Olympic team. Meet up with some guys and watch NBA All-Star Weekend festivities. If you’re feeling bold, go ahead and invite female friends to check the game out too. That’s what the NBA All-Star Weekend’s for…bringing date-free people together in a non-awkward environment.

So ladies and gentleman, go out and enjoy President’s Day weekend.

We are liv-ing sin-gle…in a 90’s kind of world.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Michael A. Benjamin, II

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

"Mo' Better Hoops": Magic, Larry, and the "Form/Function Debate" (Part 3)

(If you haven't read PART 1 or PART 2 as of this post, you should go back in order to get more clarity on this theory's origins. Thanks.)

Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a basketball player that embraced Africana “form” in basketball, and exists as the purest “formal” basketball player in the NBA’s storied history.

Magic, like my father, was born in 1959, a tumultuous year in our world’s history. Field Castro had just usurped power from Batista to begin his socialist regime in Cuba, A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway, and a young Magic was born into a large, working-class family from the streets of Michigan. Johnson’s father was a factory man for General Motors and his mother was a school custodian. Magic was the sixth of ten children, and often sang on the street corners with his boys. However, it was clear to his neighbors and friends from the outset that Magic developed his persona through a genuine love of the game of basketball.

Just like my father, one of Magic’s favorite players was Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. The kid they called "Junior" or "June Bug" could be seen on neighborhood courts as early as 7:30am on many mornings. In an interview with USA Weekend, Magic famously quoted that "I dribbled to the store with my right hand and back with my left. Then I slept with my basketball." Young Earvin’s passion for basketball superseded a love shown by most kids, which propelled Earvin to unimagined success on every level of rigorous competition.

A Lansing sportswriter gave the nickname of “Magic” to Earvin after watching one of his tremendous high school games where he saw the prep star notch 36 points, snag 16 rebounds, and dish 16 assists. At first, the nickname went against the wishes of his mother, who was a devout Christian and believed it to be blasphemous. However, the “Magic” moniker stuck, and further endears fans to Earvin "Magic" Johnson to this day.

Like any top-notch basketball magician, Magic was heavily recruited by an abundance of coaches and scouts for the top collegiate basketball programs in the nation. Interestingly, Magic chose to attend his hometown school of Michigan State over the UCLA Bruins and Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers because coach Jud Heathcote promised to allow the 6’ 9’’ Magic (a prototypical height for a forward) to play the point guard position. Even in this early career choice, we see that Magic refused to confine his “formal” skills to the prescribed template for college basketball success. Often, collegiate coaches stifle the growth and free-flow expression of young athletes because of their insatiable appetite for temporary victory. (I will come back to this concept later on in my series).

Because of his fortuitous decision, Magic was able to blossom into a superior “formal” player – becoming the best point guard of all-time.

However, while Magic excelled as this purely “formal” player, functionality still existed as the premier teaching strategy in basketball. And as I mentioned in Part 1, no region of America was more heavily based in this “functional” approach to hoops than the great Midwestern plain of Indiana.

However, another great player emerged out of this functional abyss – Larry Joe Bird. Bird was born in West Baden, Indiana, a town that demographically remains staunchly White to this day (94% in the 2000 US Census). I make this statement not to criticize West Baden from their lack of diversity (after all, American is still 65-70% White), but rather to illustrate the fact that Larry Bird was birthed into a town devoid of features found in Africana traditions and meaning-making. Simply put, “The Hick from French Lick” learned basketball in an environment conducive to “functional” basketball training.

Similar to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird also had a tough upbringing. The Bird family was poverty-stricken, and Bird’s parents were often forced to make tough choices. In a 1988 interview with Sports Illustrated, Bird mentioned that “if there was a payment to the bank due, and we needed shoes, she'd get the shoes, and then deal with them guys at the bank. I don't mean she wouldn't pay the bank, but the children always came first.” While his adoring fans may have called him the “Great White Hope”, a player constructed to dominate individual of other races, Bird never saw himself as a basketball imperialist. Bird was a timid, country guy who was simply a savant of the hardwood.

However, Larry Bird did have one distinct characteristic that set him apart from his functional companions: “Basketball Jesus" was incredibly clutch. While the clutch attribute remains an immeasurable attribute to categorize (along with being “in the zone”), there was no question among basketball fanatics of Larry Bird’s ability to come through at the most opportune times.

Unlike Magic, Larry received an athletic scholarship to Indiana University. However, upon attending Indiana, Bird was harassed by current Hoosier star Kent Benson. After a tough semester, Bird decided to drop out and return home. Bird spent the next year working for the Street Department and playing AAU basketball. His game caught the attention of Indiana State, who invited Bird to attend the school.

Meanwhile, Magic Johnson was tearing through the collegiate ranks. After his freshman year, Magic was named among the top ten returning sophomores by Sports Illustrated, and went on to average 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.1 assists during his collegiate career. During his final season, Michigan State raced to the NCAA Championship game. Similarly, Larry Bird’s Indiana State squad dominated their side of the tournament bracket, setting up an epic matchup between the two titans of amateur basketball – Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. In a game that still holds the record for television viewership, Magic’s Spartans defeated Bird’s Sycamores 75-64. Johnson was designated as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and drafted first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers. Bird, already drafted a year prior by visionary Red Auerbach, joined a powerhouse Celtic franchise in the East.

And the NBA’s greatest rivalry was born.

While Bird and Magic would battle for years in the NBA, with Magic grabbing five titles to Bird’s three, a more important battle ensued in the basketball undertow. Magic’s arrival and success on the big stage invariably shook the “functional” foundation of basketball, leading to a rigorous debate between “form” and “function”. The debate raged throughout the 1980’s, with tensions rising and falling with each Laker/Celtic championship battle.
The argument saved the league from extinction, but the debate was never fully resolved until one exceptional player graced the league stage in 1985. This man showed the basketball world that the answer to the “form/function” debate was not predicated on a choice of one theory or the other, but rather a fusion of both basketball elements. When Magic famously said that "there would never, ever, ever be another Larry Bird" at the Celtic forward's retirement, he was right. Because of this next man, "functional" basketball would never again exist in its purest state in the National Basketball Association.

Enter Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
Michael A. Benjamin II

Friday, February 6, 2009

"Mo' Better Hoops": Examining "Form" Theory's Origins in Africana

[Before we get started, there's some housekeeping to attend to:

First, for all of you American football and tennis fanatics, here's my Monday column that was published in the Hilltop, Howard's daily black newspaper. Secondly, my friend and fellow black scholar Obehi Utubor is directing a stage production of Toni Morrison's classic novel, "The Bluest Eye", at Georgetown University. Check out the Facebook "event" or access GU's Fine Arts website directly for more information, and I hope to see you there! Lastly, have you been introduced to Dr. Dunkenstein? Enjoy.

IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE? I hope so, because here comes Part 2! (I love it when "the Boss" yells on stage...)]

(Oh yeah, if you haven't read Part 1 yet...just stop, about face, and READ THAT FIRST. Trust me, you won't fully understanding this "note" if you don't...)

Before the 1980s – the decade that changed basketball – the “form” and “function” arguments in basketball dominated common sport discourse and symbolized the glaring differences between blacks and whites in American society. Organized basketball in the NBA and ABA gave blacks and whites heroes to emulate and admire.

(Side Note: I believe that early black players such as Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain served as “integration” players for the black population. In other words, these two players showed white audiences that blacks could, in fact, have success in basketball on any level and afforded them access on the traditional organized level (NBA, ABA). While they did have "form" characteristics to their game, Wilt and Bill laid the foundation for later players like Earl Monroe and Walt “Clyde” Frazier to exist as purely “form” players without repercussions from the controlling organization (NBA). But, it's just a theory, which may need to be tweaked. I invite anyone to discourse with me on the topic.

Michael Alphonso Benjamin, Sr. is a man that goes by a lot of titles – minister, professor, deacon, songwriter, co-worker, son, and most importantly (to me), father. However, few people know this one of many impressive designations to my father’s personal resume – college basketball player. My dad is a man that learned and played basketball amidst social and political change that enveloped New York City in the 1970s, and parlayed his God-given talents into success, a success that provided him an opportunity to experience basketball on the collegiate level. Whenever any research theory is hypothesized, any ardent scholar would agree that the best source of information to back up one’s assertion always comes from a primary source, a person who lived and experienced the full breadth and scope of one’s idea.

And to me, there is no better primary source of knowledge than my dad.

“Well, that Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe – he was pretty good,” my dad said to me over the phone. “Monroe had an array of moves that left you speechless and seemed to always be whirling and twirling.” I asked my dad about other players that he admired during his teenage years, and he responded with a litany of talented players. “I enjoyed watching Oscar Robertson, of course,” pausing for a moment then continuing, “then you’ve gotta go with Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, Dick Barnett, ‘Pistol’ Pete [Maravich], Wes Unseld, and the mighty Lew Alcindor from the Bronx!”. At that moment, I imagined my dad smiling through the receiver, grinning as he replayed each moment in his memory bank. But, I was confused. Why Dick Barnett?

“Well, [Dick] Barnett had this funky delivery to his jump shot,” my dad continued. “Barnett would kick his legs up, then follow through with his release. It was just – interesting.” Then, I asked about Alcindor, Frazier, and Maravich. “Lew – I mean, you know him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – was exceptional with that sky hook. It was just unstoppable. I liked Frazier because of his style. Frazier was a cool, smooth guy in real life, and it carried over to his game on the court. Frazier was quick and controlled. And you know, 'Pistol' Pete. He was just so inventive with the basketball.”

After talking with my dad, I realized that the creative, free-flow, “form” idea of basketball is a concept that doesn’t just apply to black people. Even white players exhibited some notions of “form” basketball in their play (like Dick Barnett’s “funky” release to his jumper) and were also innovators that influenced the evolution of the sport’s “aesthetic qualities”. Echoing my father, I believe that ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich was an atypical white player who fully embraced the characteristics of “form” basketball, immersed himself in the style, and made it a defining aspect of his game. “Pistol” Pete’s style and unmitigated love of the game was a style that dually endeared him to white and black people during his professional playing days.

However, while I agree that the “form” concept can be embraced by all basketball aficionados regardless of color or creed, I argue that the “form” characteristics of basketball are rooted in the traditions of Black Americans – a tradition that can be traced back to the African aesthetic.

Robert Farris Thompson, in his book African Art and Motion, talks about the idea of African “form” and artistic aesthetical expression by looking at traditional dance. He met with seventy (70) traditional experts on African dance and said that this group “discussed [African dance] style with saliency, voicing comments about [the importance of] timing, finish, dress, thematic balance without hesitation”. Thompson talked about the specificity of the Yoruba evaluation process in regards to dance, but pointed out that the Yoruba “were never so technical as to destroy the flavor of the motion as a work of art”. Thompson concluded that Africans contains a sense of “artistic cultural solidarity”, and that his research showed that respondents “talked about the beauty of the dance” in terms of this Africanness. African art stems on the idea of “vital aliveness” and carries over to a variety of different expressive forms.

In America, this “aliveness” in form was seen in slavery's songs, the black church, and later on in “swing music”, which is roughly defined by theorist Gunther Schuller as music that “maintains an equilibrium between melodic and rhythmic relationships”. In African (Black) music, pitch cannot exist without strong rhythm. All musical accents are played with equal strength, creating this “youthful drive”. Thompson says that most of Western musical theorists are annoyed by the “loudness” that accompanies African music, but argues that “this is precisely the point.” That’s why jazz and Jimi Hendrix’s early heavy metal is played at such high levels. Loudness accentuates the normally low-played notes by Western tradition and adds the necessary rhythm and equality typified in African art.

Of course, this “aliveness” in African form and “vividness in equilibrium” carries over to the basketball court, with artistic expression key to the transformation of game play. “Aliveness” in young people is praised by Africans, who see it as representative of “fine form.”

Hmm, doesn’t this sound familiar?

The “smoothness” that my dad saw in Walt “Clyde” Frazier comes from the African idea of “coolness”, a strong intellectual and peaceful attitude combined with humor and play. The inventiveness of a Dick Barnett jump shot or a “Pistol” Pete offensive move reminds one of the African idea of “personal and representational balance.” The use of African “flexibility” is even seen in Kareem’s development and execution of the “unstoppable” sky hook (and led him to a role in Bruce Lee's "Game of Death").

Africana “aliveness” has transformed many aspects of American life. The concept and inventiveness found in the African aesthetic transformed the game of basketball, leading to the sport's evolution, and capturing the attention of a talented youth from Lansing, Michigan – Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

(Next, I'll be talking about Magic, Bird, and "form/function" in the 1980's NBA.)
(Again, thanks for the support.)

Michael A. Benjamin, II