It’s been said that Change is the only Constant.
From the end of the Celtic dominated 60s to the wide open 70s, including the merger with the ABA, Larry O’Brien’s league was THISCLOSE to being dead and gone toward the end of the decade. Winds of change had to blow for the NBA or it might have been a wrap for a league that had operated for over 30 years, but was faced with a multitude of dilemmas, from cultural and optical to moral and stylistic issues.
The confluence of drugs and politics with music and sports in my nascent world view by February 1983 ended up being the variables by which I would begin to shape the design of my Life.
Magic, Bird, Kareem, Isiah… NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles… Hollyweird.
Back then, the Lakers owner, the now-departed Dr. Jerry Buss, was a pioneer of sorts. Dr. Buss was all about blending the game with entertainment as an avenue of expanding his fan base and reach of the game itself.
The Lakers Girls, Jack Nicholson, Dyan Cannon, Dustin Hoffman, Denzel Washington… To be in Inglewood, in The Forum, home of the defending NBA champion Los Angles Lakers, was to be IN!
For what it’s worth, the 1983 NBA All Star Game was an entertaining and naturally star-studded affair. Watching the level and speed of it all, along with the joy of making millions for playing a childhood game, enraptured me.
Julius Winfield Erving II won his second and last NBA All-Star Game MVP as his Hall of Fame career was winding down. He was made for TV. He was made for dreams. He was The Doc: My Favourite Player of All Time. And The Doc rocked my Holy Grail of Fine Athletic Footwear: The Converse Pro Leather.
I wante– no I needed them, though I suspect even if the classiest, coolest, most elegant cat to ever lace them up in The Association wore Chucks or PF Flyers, I would have desired those, too.
What made the festivities of the day all the more extraordinary was the singing of the National Anthem by Marvin Gaye.
Before Gaye, the song had rarely, if ever, been taken by singers to craft their own unique renditions of the national standard.
To many, Gaye’s performance was heresy, tantamount to treason in the eyes of so-called patriots. NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien was fully aware and concerned by a continued perception of his league. O’Brien’s primarily White financial base considered the NBA a drug-addled band of primarily Black millionaires in short pants snorting half of Peru and was furious at the aberration in protocol by Gaye. But the players, fans and O’Brien’s right hand, then Executive Vice President of the NBA, David Stern, loved Gaye’s offering.
Stern, who in his role as EVP, helped to establish a huge concession with the players’ association: drug testing, always talked of ways to improve the league.
The game, the song and the decision would mark a dramatic shift in perception of culture, entertainment and the inevitability of change.
“What’s Right Ain’t Always Popular…
And What’s Popular Ain’t Always Right!”
I can hear my Dear Ol’ Dude’s (Bless The Dead) booming baritone rumbling in my ears time and time again, constantly schooling me on the life that lay ahead.
Ronald Wilson Reagan.
The name stayed with me often as Dad decried him The World’s Biggest Drug Dealer… and his Commander In Chief.
I was 12 and the world was changing around me in a multitude of ways.
This thing called “crack” was taking hold in many a socioeconomically distressed area across #Murica.
The violence and human destruction that came along with it had ancillary effect. Kids my age, some even younger, were making more money than I’d ever hustled in my picayune revenue generating schemes by just walking bags of “something” to various houses back and forth across the street.
My Intellect of Curb was growing rapidly much to the dismay of a proud man who did everything to keep me and my younger brothers from getting graduate degrees in Street Knowledge.
The allure was intoxicating… as was the luxury of unassisted breathing in lieu of a long stay in a hospital bed if I became a line stepper in Dad’s eyes, much less a habitual one. Value proposition offered, I wisely opted to remain proficient in my studies at school as well as basketball, especially now that I’d finally defeated by biggest hoops foe, My Dear Ol’ Dad.
I’d worked all summer, fall and winter the year before to get me here. Dad used to abuse me on the court, pushing… grabbing… fouling… telling me this was the way the world would treat me, if I allowed it. And if I fought back, there would be a pay off… a reward.
Mine would be for him to buy me a pair of my beloved Converse Pro Leathers aka The Dr J’s IF I beat him in a game of one-on-one to 12!
This would be a huge step up from the burnt orange Converse One Star All Stars that were a size or so too big that my Uncle Kevin bequeathed to me some time ago.
I hated my father at the time for treating me like this. I would learn to understand the method to this madness eventually, but that time would have to wait. I planned my work to work my plan. Every waking moment, no matter the weather, I was on that dangerous court where even the cats forever tied to the streets would look out for me.
It’s About To Go Down, B!
You Should Get Outta Here NOW!”
It was not gonna be a just a friendly game of basketball. It wasn’t gonna be basketball at all. And while Dad and The Lost Souls Of Concrete, Cocoa Leaves x Steel did their best to protect me, I found it hard to protect the first real pair of freshness to bless my feet… well, at least the first fresh I purchased with my own dough.
As much as I loved Doc and Converse, this relatively new company called “Nike” started blessing the world with butters.
Another relatively new company, FootLocker, is where I found them: Nike Bruins aka “Kiki Vandeweghes”.
I was in lust!
Fights would ensue as classmates in Chucks and Pro-Keds wanted to play “stepsies” with my new fresh. It was a struggle to keep them clean and new looking. I was Learning… Growing… Living…
Additional education was coming in the form of this thing called “rap”.
Dad wasn’t hearing it.
He was a jazz head, so Bird, Miles and Trane got top billing, with some Gil Scott-Heron and Last Poets to help season my sonic cultural expressions diet.
Moms was Motown. Really super hardcore R&B fan. Smokey, Stevie… Marvin… Marvin Pentz Gay was her guy; The Crooner’s Crooner.
Somewhere, born out of it all, I came to find Grandmaster Flash x The Furious Five’s “The Message” as the anchor to my young, expanding Life. The song played a huge part in helping to shape my early world view. I wasn’t going to fall victim to being a product of my environs. I could be from a place and not necessarily be of that place, dig me?
“Don’t Push Me, ‘Cuz I’m Close To Edge!
I’m Try-In’ Not To Lose My Head!”
Despite my song-fuelled semi-tough guy courage, I was still sneaking to watch NBA Finals games on tape delay at 11:35, just after your late local newscast, under my sheets with the volume on sub-zero with my 13″ black and white set.
I loved basketball so much I was willing to catch a slap from my parents for violating their rules. So be it! I was a fiend for hoops before I became a teen! I dreamed of melting would be defenders like cones of ice cream, word to William Michael Griffin, Jr. I just wanted to be a star… in everything! I wanted to be Magic, Isiah, Kareem, Bird…
Ok. Maybe I reached with Bird, but I respected his gangsta on the court. I couldn’t stand whenever he won anything, though!
Fiending for professional basketball had an entirely different tone.To say Commissioner O’Brien’s league had a drug problem would be slightly akin to saying I had a sneaker problem as I schemed constantly of how to get them.
Moms’ favourite singer, Marvin Gaye, also had a severe drug problem. It was said he’d kicked the habit, but…
“Flying High In The Friendly Skies…
Without Ever Leaving Ground…
I Go To The Place Where Danger Awaits Me…
And It’s Bound To Forsake Me…
So Stupid Minded (I Can’t Help It)…
But I Go Crazy When I Can’t Find It…”
By 1984, Larry O’Brien had ceded control of the Association to his right hand man, David Stern, who in his 30 years as NBA Commish totally changed the landscape and dynamics of the professional sports business.
Never hurts that in the same year of 1984, the NBA draft class was top heavy with Hall of Fame stars, including the most transcendent star of them all, Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
The intersection of culture, style, defiance and substance forged Jordan’s iconography, supported by his stellar play and his signature sneaker, the Air Jordan.
Stern’s enhancement of All-Star Weekend, including the revival of the dunk contest, introducing community and global initiatives and the breadth of the entertainment value, would forever change how I viewed sports.
Marvin Gaye forever changed the way we would hear the Anthem, for better or for worse.
After his Sexual Healing Tour launched in April 1983 on the back of overwhelming wave of visibility from his version the Star Spangled Banner, he would never sing another song.
By the next year, Gaye would be dead, high out of his mind after freebasing on coke and shot in a dispute with his father.
And, by the next year, I was officially a teenager; a little less innocent… and a lot more aware of the world.
High school. Girls. Sports… and a Choice: stay on my functions in class and excel in athletics or… Well, there was no “or” for me.
No matter how much I wanted “things” like the dope boys around me had, I wanted something more… something more endearing to me.
I wanted my Life.
And…I got my Dr. J’s!
Until the next time we cross paths, maybe even in New Orleans in the midst of The Association’s annual mid-season celebration of its best, brightest and most popular stars not named Zaza Pachulia, and peek to observe the flame broiled goodness that is affixed to our feet in quiet, mutual admiration…
“Wall $t.” Will Strickland