Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Deconstruction of the Mythical Folk Hero

Where can we find today’s mythical American heroes?

Surely not in the coal mines of the mighty Alleghenys, or in the dusty pages of a Dean Koontz novel.

Definitely not in the pockets of worn windbreaker jackets, or in the amalgam of individuals clamoring for attention on city streets.

Perhaps they can be found in the realm of politics, where a junior senator from the Midwest can rally an unstable country behind his unquenchable spirit and symbolic fist bump.

However, without question, sports remains as the single realm that allows the populace to sculpt heroes in the same façade as those characters documented in our glorious and shameful past.

Sports, you see, really do matter. The basketball court is our Roman Colisseum, the football field our Spartan Agoge. We scream for our heroic figures to exude grandeur, to entertain us, and most of all, to provide historic records of their achievements so that we may pass down their legend from generation to generation. We beg perfection from mortal individuals in a world that scoffs at that very idea.
To me, there’s something poetic about a dream deferred. As Shakespeare once wrote, there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. When one of modernity’s heroes falls short of inscribed goals and society’s high expectations, he nonetheless indirectly escapes the hollow sublime. Our society demands its heroes to function without blemish, to perform as enthusiastic actors on our make-believe stage. Perhaps this is why the greatest superheroes wear masks. Or, in the case of football players, helmets and face paint.

But alas, in the sport of basketball, one is not afforded the same luxury. As Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes runs unbound in the forests of the Yucatan, unknown basketball stiffs get mobbed for autographs and memorabilia as they exit common urbane locales. Heck, my mother recently saw Herb Williams exiting our local YMCA. As the great Dave Chappelle mentioned in his Inside the Actors Studio interview, once you acquire fame…you can never be unfamous. Perhaps infamous, as the martyred Ron Artest can surely attest, but never un-famous. And as a basketball player, your gift of freakish athleticism and height may very well come to function as a curse.

I’m not here to wish this inauspicious prophecy on the Black Mamba. The Black Mamba, or Dendroaspis polylepis, is a venomous “tree snake” found in the jungles of my native Africa. And no, I don’t wish ill-will against Kobe Bryant, either.

However…why can we find many of the scribes, thinkers, and fellow superpowers of the basketball underworld passionately rooting against this artificial Lakers infantry? Why am I cheering against this collection of men, simple pawns used to potentially capture victory for the overzealous chessmaster (Kobe Bryant)?

Well, there are a bevy of reasons, actually. Some root against the Lakers because of the inherent bias found in today’s NBA, with Stern’s referees crafting champions at their discretion. Some root against the Lakers because of their annoying fans, those imbeciles that choose to hang pennants from their car antennas and blast E-40 en route to the Staples Center.

But as I watched Kobe complete yet another momentous comeback against arguably the hottest team in the Association, an intriguing hypothesis crossed my mind. Is it Kobe Bryant’s destiny to play the tragic hero? Is he simply a physical vector destined to fall short of its intended trajectory?

Simply put, I want to see how he reacts to normalcy. Throughout his career, Kobe has shirked normalcy, instead choosing a path of decadence without genuine exuberance. Like a surgeon, every move has been predetermined, every motion calculated, every game tape examined. Since the Colorado incident, Kobe has worn the mask of politeness, conformity, and uniformity. Bryant has formed friendships with supporting cast members beneath his level, even while it pains him to do so. One by one, his sponsors and advertisers have crawled back to his feet.

Personally, I miss the old Kobe Bryant. The high school phenom from Philly that donned the LAKERS #8, the youth that chose to ignore gravity by playing expertly above the rim. The kid that wasn’t afraid to show his emotions and embrace those veterans around him, for better (Shaq) or worse (Gary Payton). The innovator of the famed running alley-oop pass, and the awkward teenager who famously took Brandy to his senior prom. The basketball savant that possessed a semblance of enigmatic majesty. Yeah, I miss that guy.
Let’s be clear: I’m not forwarding the idea that ’96 Kobe compares favorably to ’09 Kobe in regards to his talent level and basketball acumen. That teenage prototype needed the compassion and support of the Big Teddy while this fully functional version is clearly autonomous in nature. When he’s doing work, Kobe Bryant is a well-oiled machine. But…he’s just that. A machine.

In short, Kobe Bryant has become a binary. Either you love him or you hate him. That’s it. And this ongoing rhetoric is not conducive to the formation of the folk hero, a mythological status that young Stephon Curry enjoys but an aging Kobe still seeks to attain.

In many ways, this is Kobe Bryant’s last chance. Lebron will improve, Dwight Howard will learn a wider array of post moves, Wade will find a new cast of characters, and the Paul/Williams dichotomy will become new fodder to strengthen the NBA’s menacing stranglehold of the advertiser. And with over 1,000 games already transcribed on his physical odometer, Kobe’s not getting any younger. Soon, Kobe Bryant and his ragtag troupe will take residence in the annals of Basketball.

Kobe stands as a marketing godsend, global ambassador, and revolutionary cosmopolitan. But will that career-defining championship forever elude his grasp?

In a matter of days, we’ll soon find out.

Let us begin our journey to this final frontier.

Mike Benjamin, II

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday

A few days ago, I was rummaging through my Dad’s room for a clean pair of socks. Like a smart college student, I used my entire stash of clean sockage before leaving Howard so that I could abuse my Dad’s free washer-dryer at the house. I mean, I figured since we’re big believers in the mi casa es su casa policy…it wouldn’t be a big deal! Right? But then again, this economy ain’t no joke.

(Make reference to the terrible economy to elicit sympathy? CHECK.)

As the hunt for clean socks commenced, my good eye lingered on a small picture set nestled between a copy of biblical concordance and a short bottle of Nautica cologne. It was a picture of your narrator, wearing his Little League uniform, revealing a mouth devoid of adult teeth.

For about ten minutes, I stared at that photo. If only I could dispense some sagacious advice to the younger me! You know, like tell him not to play catcher with the kid that would eventually give him the scar that he would carry on his right cheek. Or, perhaps encourage him to punch that white kid in the face for using the “n-word” at Holy Cross High instead of nodding slowly through gritted teeth to avoid suspension. Heck, I could even teach him that girls in high school are not as intimidating and terrifying as they seem. But alas, the knowledge was trapped in my adult brain. I left my younger self trapped in his plastic prison, a character serving his sentence as an image evoking memories of a simpler past.

For the first time in my life, I understood the concept of time flight.

Since I don’t want to become a clichéd writer, let’s take a moment to deconstruct an annoying statement that has become abused within the rhetoric of our society.

Time flies when you’re having fun. Trust me, that’s sooooooo not true. Time just flies. Period.

Which brings me to my true reason for writing this column: College is OVER.

It’s just crazy to consider. I literally remember walking into my freshman dorm, looking at the bleak walls painted puke green, and baking in the heat like a rotisserie chicken. I remember cutting heads for cash in the community bathroom, sharing the one hot water shower on my floor with fifty other dudes, and praying for a quick end to the atrocity.

Well, God answered my prayer. My four years of college went by faster than the Tim Donaghy scandal. On graduation day, I felt like Hiro from NBC’s Heroes. And over these last four years, I’ve made my share of mistakes and contributions, picked up some great friends, and learned a bit about what it means to be a man of integrity and faith.

Wait, did I just say MAN? Well…I guess I also (gulp) became an adult, too.

It’s true. In a heartbeat, my Dad’s little son – the Little Leaguer, the Mock Trial aficionado, the deadly basketball sharpshooter – became an adult. Yes, it’s painfully obvious that I look like an 18-year-old extra from Saved By The Bell. (I just learned how to shave last week.) But during my college years, a metaphysical transformation took place. Even though I still get hyped watching the Blue Barracudas battle it out on Legends of the Hidden Temple reruns, I’ve started to think about investing my finances and budgeting my resources. I’ve even had to start asking myself the tough questions. Should I go to graduate school or law school? When is it not okay to ask your parents for gas money? For the love of God, what am I going to be now that I’ve “grown up”?

Yes, I’ve officially crossed the threshold into adulthood. If you don’t believe me, just ask the student loan office. I hate being in debt.

Graduates (and overzealous underclassmen), don’t panic. With the wind of God in your sails, life’s a breeze. But once this adulthood thing gets underway, I don’t think we’ll get too much time to reflect. So, let's do it NOW! Where are you going anyway? Gas prices are rising again! What’s the rush?

To honor my college years, I’ve decided to finish out these soppy graduation columns with a bang. Then, it’s back to sports talk and awkward ramblings.

Yes, I’ll miss you. And you. And you. And you. And of course, I’ll miss you too.

But there’s some people and things that I won’t miss from college at all. Not for one minute. So, to keep the tears from destroying your desktops and BlackBerries, I’ve decided to let it all hang out. Why not? You’ll never see me again, right?

Let’s just cut to the chase already.

Goodbye…to the one nice lady in the loan office. I hope the anger and hate that spews from your colleagues doesn’t singe your cheerful countenance. Or your eyebrows.

Good riddance…to H. Patrick Swygert. I never found out what that H actually stood for. Heathcliff? Herbert? You know it HAD to be wack if you took the time to hide it.

Goodbye…to the few girls that I seriously considered dating before chickening out. If you liked me, feel free to drop me a line. You know I get text now.

Good riddance…to the girls who attempted to employ my creative intellect for their evil desires. No, I can’t help you study for your GRE’s in June. Isn’t that what the prep class is for?

Goodbye…to the professorial triumvirate (Carr, Williams, Tovares) who encouraged me to develop my creative abilities and pushed me to achieve a level of excellence I once though impossible. You will be missed.

Good riddance…to my negative attitude and low self-esteem. Man, you were the worst. Good thing Donald Lawrence (or David, if the Bible) made “encouraging onesself in the Lord” a positive re-affirming practice. Living in this newfound freedom is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Goodbye…to my Motorola Razor. Actually, I’ll see you around…now that you’ve become my kid brother’s new phone. I kept you in great shape over these last few years. We had some great times together…ordering pizzas, begging for project extensions, and conducting phone interviews for humungous internship positions (Beijing!). Man, those were the days.

Good riddance…to my apartment's terrible cable connection. I went a full semester without the NBA on TNT because of your inability to provide me a good screen. No, don’t go blaming this one on the TV. That bad boy’s been going strong since I earned it shoveling snow in the cul-de-sacs of New York. I’m still readjusting my eyes to our high definition monitor at home because of you.

Goodbye…to dormitory living. Are you an egg short of a monster omelet? Borrow one from the guy next door! Want to play basketball on a sunny day? Just message all twenty dudes who lived in the Towers to see who’s ready to get owned!

Good riddance…to the ridiculously loud speaker systems played by obnoxious jerks on any given weeknight. Why play ONE song at full blast for ten minutes at a time? People are trying to sleep! Ahh! Loud Noises!!!!!

Goodbye…to Remember when you had to type “TheFacebook” to get to this little website? Remember when we were finally allowed to add profile pictures? Back then, I felt like I was part of some cool, little network. Then my teenage cousin got a profile. (By the way...Zuckerberg, I’m watching you. Don’t go all crazy like that dude from MySpace.)

Good riddance…to Black Planet, Friendster, and all those other random social networking websites. Don’t hate, collaborate. Maybe you guys can become an application on Facebook.

Goodbye…to life as an individual, not as a token smart black. Hello, corporate entity that seeks my application for employment. I look forward to not fitting your neat, little stereotypes of black people characterized by buffoons like Tracy Morgan and Sean Patrick Thomas. Look! I can make a reference to Warren G in my sophisticated presentation on cross-platform advertising! And I don’t even know how to dance!

Good riddance…to the cult, the School of Business. Yes, it turns out that you need to actually develop an understanding about society outside of stuffy corporate management suites and aggrandizing self-promotion. (See what I did there?) No, waving green paper in the air with Washington’s face on it at commencement doesn’t actually mean that a cushy job with stock options awaits to embrace you with open arms. I look forward to seeing you infiltrate my city and get lost in our subway system. No, I'm not bitter. I enjoyed wearing T-Shirts to class on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
(Eh, I figured it was past time for me to make a subtle dig at them, you know?)

Goodbye…to Mr. Quick, engineer of the famed morning omelet toss. I’ll miss seeing you allow girls with exposed cleavage to cut the omelet line even though I would already be waiting for ten minutes. Hey, can you hear me? I did Sudoku puzzles while waiting for my spinach and cheese dude!

Good riddance…to the new cafeteria. Yes, I know it looks better. But why did you wait until I shifted to dining dollars to remodel the place? I would’ve overlooked this unfortunate error if you had only made sure to keep the salad bar stocked with croutons and Italian dressing. It’s the only style I like, dangit.

Goodbye…to the Honors Program. In that office, I could be AS LOUD AS I WANTED! We had some epic conversations in that room. In the Honors Office, I felt like a big fish in a small pond, or so I thought. We all did. It was like living in Cleveland or something. Or, like being a contestant on Tiny House. I could always use the free paper, Dr. Williams.

Good riddance…to the pressure to conform to patterns existent at my university. No, I never felt the tickle to become a part of a fraternity or to become a top-notch student government officer. Nope, I never liked talking to a girl with too much makeup and too little makeup. (More often than not, I wondered if I could butter my toast with the extra cake of mascara applied to her face.) To be or not to be? Eh, well…I just WAS.

Goodbye…to the Geek Squad. No, not those pompous jerks that charge you one hundred bucks to fix your laptop's backlight, but the people that held me accountable and encouraged me to do my best academic work. I won’t call you out for fear of destroying your street cred, but I do appreciate you. Let's always go hard or go home.

Goodbye…to the Dandy’s man, who always delivered my 10 Pc. Buffalo wings with white rice on time, no matter how bad the weather. I will leave your number in my phone out of respect.

Good riddance…to Ho Chi, who continue to effectively cripple the campus with its insistence on low prices and late hours. I know those lads and lasses were eating cat. I mean, are chicken even formed like that? Make sure to wipe the blood off of the floor though. People don’t enjoy seeing murder stains on your linoleum before devouring your mambo sauce.

Goodbye…to the Kennedy Recreation Center on P St., where I could shoot hoops and get games with guys without having to wait 27 “Next!” yells for my turn.

Good riddance…to Burr Gym, with your egregiously long intramural tournament robbing us of sheer enjoyment of the facility. When I give back, I’m putting my cash aside for Howard to build a monster gym somewhere else. Maybe then people will actually show up for basketball games.

Goodbye…to my sister, Arielle. Well, at least to the "Hey look...we're both in college at the SAME TIME at the SAME SCHOOL!" moment we shared. You are my partner-in-cool, my sister of suave, our family’s Daedalus of décor. No one will ever come close to reduplicating our intrinsic connection. We became great friends in college, and that counts for wayyy more than boosting some grade point average. Plus, you understand my jokes better than anyone else. Heck, we ARE freaking twins…even though I’m 1 ½ years older than you.

Quick, walk the other direction. I don’t want too many people staring at us during this emotional encounter. Oh crap…they already started talking pictures. Just act like nothing’s happening.

(Folks, by the way…stop calling Arielle “Lil’ Benjamin”, “Baby Benjamin”, or whatever clever moniker you developed to solicit her. We hate that. We get it. She’s my sister. Those references have never been and are no longer acceptable. Her name is ARIELLE. Got it? Cool. I’d hate it if everyone referenced me as that for my entire college career.)

Good riddance…to the moniker of “Lil’ Benjamin.” In addition, good riddance to those dudes who would try to befriend me in order to get closer to Arielle. And vice versa. Trust me…we KNOW who you are. Just stop already.

Goodbye…to Blackburn's C store. I killed SO many dining dollars in that little shop, buying my routine Gatorade/Almond Joy combo. Yeah, I know only old men eat Almond Joys. Leave me alone.

Good riddance…to the Punch-Out. Do you know why they call it the Punch-Out? Because all that chicken grease and fatty food knocks you out! (Man, that joke looks so lame on paper...)

But most of all, goodbye to all the people that made my college experience worthwhile. That includes you, faithful blog readers. This blog was a big part of what made college fun for me, because it helped me to realize that I’m pretty talented at making people laugh at my words. And, you know, talking sports.

Instead of moving this entire operation strictly to Points Off Turnovers, I’m going to keep posting my entries over here on the Facebook too. Honestly, I just think that it’ll be way too hard to get my readers to commute to my blog to read my updates and long-form posts. As I mentioned before, it’s tough to establish a base audience. Once someone establishes an Internet routine (check e-mail, update status, pick nose, read, monitor updates from Bossip), it’s tough to shake them out of that track.

Either way, I’ll still be around. Feel free to text me (I’ve got a BlackBerry…WOO!) or hit me up on Don’t worry…I won’t pull a Where’s Waldo? on you.

Howard University, I’ll see you when I see you. God, you are SOOOOOO awesome.
Mike Benjamin, II

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

When "Doing the Most" Goes Wrong...

This “Bucket List” idea has to be one of the greatest ideas ever conceived by my brain.

God, you are the man for this one.

If you didn’t already know or haven't see me for the last two weeks, I’ve been tinkering with this idea of a “Bucket List”. No, I don’t plan on dying anytime soon. Instead, this “bucket list” contains a litany of events that I want to complete and ideas that I want to flesh out before graduation.

Even though the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman served as inspiration for the title, I’ve actually been thinking about maximizing these two weeks for the past two years since my boy Ray Bignall graduated. Instead of playing the waiting game before graduation, Ray literally went to every single Smithsonian, did everything fun that he’s ever wanted to do in D.C., and graduated with a slew of Facebook pictures and fond memories. In short, Ray became a tourist.

Of course…as a New Yorker, I didn’t want to be THAT GUY. In New York, we always make sport of trying to find the misplaced tourist as they traverse Manhattan. Humungous camera? CHECK. Hawaiian shirt even though it’s New York in April? CHECK. Geeked expression on face when staring at random street performer? CHECK. Wearing socks with sandals? Ewwww.

However, there’s no shame in being a tourist. Actually, after missing out on a ton of cool stuff in Washington because I was trying to be cool…I realized that it’s necessary to cross into the tourist trap, er…zone. How else can you properly maximize the experience? When will you ever have this much time to frequent D.C. on the cheap?

So, as a self-proclaimed tourist, I have been taking out things on my itemized list. Last Saturday, I joined my friends on the National Mall for our annual Spring Thing. On Sunday, I played basketball at Pentagon City with my buddies from Grace Covenant DC and actually dunked the rock during our pickup game. (And by “dunk”, I mean…I Wally Szczerbiak’d that bad boy to the rim. Sweet.) On Monday, I went swimming at the local pool, enjoyed dinner at the home of one of my funniest friends to date, and went duck-hunting…on the old-school Nintendo.

On Tuesday, my sister and I went to the Senate office and happened to be in Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) office when MSNBC announced that Arlen Specter would switch political parties. Yes, we DID hear audible screams of joy.

On Wednesday, I visited the set of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption”. Later, I watched my friend Obehi Janice blow the audience away with her solo play over at Georgetown. After that, we snagged an ice cream dinner at Baskin Robbins, who was basically giving the sugary goodness away at 31¢ a scoop. But since the deal was limited to three scoops per customer, we then drove to another BR near Georgetown to get our fill.

On Thursday, I rolled out with my boy Rich and our crew to an all-you-can-eat wings place in Virginia and proceeded to eat 27 wings and 2 chicken fingers. Then, it was off to the Honors Banquet and Royal Affair for more eats. I love having high metabolism.

On Friday, we had a cool forty people (read that again, FORTY) join me on an excursion to witness Wolverine eviscerate bad guys in X-Men Origins. Trust me, there’s nothing more soothing after a tiresome semester than watching Hugh Jackson tear bad guys to shreds. Plus, with all the people…I was geeked. I didn’t know people ACTUALLY followed through after clicking “Attending” on Facebook. As we were all walking to the theater, I felt like Ice Cube in “Straight Outta Compton.” Or, better yet, Heavy D in the “Now That We Found Love” music video. (By the way, wasn’t this song extremely underrated? “Now that WHEEEEE found love…what are WHEEEEE gonna DOOOOO…WITH IT?” Great.)

However, some negative side-effects have begun to present themselves due to my infatuation with redeeming the time. First, I’ve destroyed my internal clock to the point where I end up waking up at like 6:30am for no apparent reason. Second, and more importantly…I’ve been missing NBA playoff basketball.

At first, it was no big deal. I figured that David Stern had probably handpicked we’d probably see the Black Mamba take on the Lebrons in the NBA Finals, and that these other series would just be meaningless battles for second-place. Instead of regurgitating information from other sources…why not sit back and enjoy life for a change? Why not live for the wonder of it all?

So I decided to go to Royal Affair 2009. Royal Affair is the night where the religious organizations on campus are honored for their service, and is usually a night that does a good job of covering the three F’s…food, folks, and fun. Since I’d never been to a Royal Affair ceremony, the night was marked on my calendar as a “bucket list” event. But there was only one problem.

The Chicago Bulls ended up taking the Boston Celtics to Game 6.

I arrived at the event wearing my tailored black suit with red tie…looking rather dapper if I do say so myself. Like Waldbaums, I stay fresh obsessed. However, while I looked smooth on the exterior, I was getting more anxious by the second. I looked at my phone. Tip-off in five minutes. I looked around the event and remembered that we were at the National Council for Negro Women office building on Connecticut Avenue. In other words, there were no televisions in sight.

I walked into the dining area and spotted my boy Ade at a far table. Knowing that Ade would be searching for game updates throughout the night, I plopped down in the seat to his left. After a brief conversation, we then began to strategize…agreeing that we’d take turns begging the security guard to refresh on a thirty-minute clip. It was desperate, it was selfish, but it HAD to be done. We would not be denied.

Unfortunately, when one feasts on ill-fated Internet updates…you’re bound to miss the ebb and flow of actual game action. When we checked the score at about the 3:00 mark of the fourth quarter and saw Boston up 7…I loudly declared the series OVER.

Three overtimes later, I was kicking myself. How could I miss the best game of the playoffs? Could I still call myself a true basketball fan?

When wielded with tact, the “Bucket List” can be considered one of the greatest single innovations released to the modern world. However, when this list causes a sportswriter to miss one of the greatest basketball games of all-time…perhaps the list should head back to the drawing board.

We don’t need this idea causing more harm than good.

Until I’m officially done with college, go over and check out Tillman’s blog, or, or somebody else who’s writing solid features about sports. But for now, I’ll take a hiatus from sports talk. I’ll go ahead and take a few plays off. I’m going to continue to maximize this on-campus vacation and enjoy this last week of restoration. But I'm not missing any more important playoff basketball, that's for sure.

Rest assured…I’ll be back in no time. Heck, maybe even sooner than you think.

Mike Benjamin, II

P.S. If you want to see more pictures from the Bucket Week, here's the link. Yes, I DID take these photos with my Kodak disposable camera. Go ahead...get your laughs in now.