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

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