It started off on the island, aka Shaolin…it was November 9th, 1993, almost 19 years to the day that the Wu-Tang Clan dropped their legendary Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) album and hip-hop was forever changed. While the Clan was busy blowing the minds of hip-hop heads across the globe with their Kung-Fu-inspired lyrics and pro-black mathematics, LeBron Raymone James was kicking it in Akron, Ohio with his mama, Gloria who was all of 24-years-old and raising the boy on her own. Even though there were mystical elements to the Clan (their formation (like Voltron), their lyrics and bizarre obsession with the ways of the East), it’s doubtful they realized the semi-prophetic links between their lyrics, their most infamous member and this fatherless 8-year-old from Akron.
“And and, then we got, then we got the Ol’ Dirty Bastard ‘cause there ain’t no father to his style.” – Method Man
When Meth spoke those words, he articulated everything we ever needed to know about ODB, aka Russell Jones (Also worth noting it was eight years ago today that ODB died—if Wu-Tang’s involved, we can’t over-emphasize the impact of numerology. And while we’re playing around with numbers, the 13th of November is also a birthdate shared by Metta World Peace and myself; so it’s clearly we’re all interconnected and I couldn’t not write this.). In a culture where fathers are far-too-often absent, ODB’s bastardness, when referenced by Meth, was a description of his style. And as any of us who heard his often unhinged roars and raps or followed his numerous incarcerations and impregnatings can attest: The man was (Ason) unique. There never could’ve been a father, a model or path previous feet had stepped (or stumbled).
And in the NBA, where we’re all obsessed with paternal lineage, with father figures, styles and history, obsessed to the point of books, blogs, TV shows and stack ranks; a player’s stylistic bloodline matters. In a marketing sense, Michael Jordan was one of a kind, but in the stylistic sense, he was a descendent of the line of Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, David Thompson and he’s the father of Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade—the high-flying, slashing, scoring shooting guards. Lines may vary; Shaquille O’Neal, for example, stems from a line that began with George Mikan, who begat Wilt Chamberlain, who begat Shaq and has (somewhat) begat Dwight Howard—physical monstrosities that the game’s rulers (read: Competition Committee) have no idea how to handle.
Shirts are for conformists and we are not conforming.
What of LeBron James? In his game and style, his physique and narrative, we see potential fathers: Karl Malone meets Magic Johnson, Magic Johnson meets Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen meets Karl Malone meets Magic Johnson meets Michael Jordan meets Julius Erving (what?) or my favorite, Charles Barkley meets Scottie Pippen. We badly want our basketball history to evolve the way humans did…Neanderthals to Cro-Magnons to the beings we are today—crawlers, hunched over walkers, upright bipeds, jumpers, runners, dunkers. Oscar Robertson to Magic Johnson to Penny Hardaway to LeBron James to Shaun Livingston—wait, scratch that last one. This continuity is what we crave.
But as he has done for longer than he gets credit for, LeBron James continues to defy classification. In both a technical (if we’re being crude) and ODB-esque sense, LeBron James is a bastard; there is no father to his style. He’s not out there flagrantly breaking Federal or state laws like Dirty. He’s just out there leading the league in PER for the 6th consecutive season, winning MVPs, earning subjective titles like “most versatile defender in the NBA,” being inevitably added to the “potential to be better than Jordan?” conversation and continuing to redefine his fatherless style. This kind of original (both the literal and metaphorical senses) has its faults as we’ve all witnessed with LeBron over the past few years where he’s made mistakes and mishandled complex steps. His “decision” was the equivalent of ODB’s segment on MTV—a serious lack in judgment, an avoidable mistake, a stain that hopefully fades with time (we’re a forgiving, but far from forgetting culture). It’s a lot easier to fuck up like this when you don’t have a dad waiting for you at home with a question like, “What the fuck are you doing? I raised you better than that.”
Missteps aside, LeBron’s undefinability was on full display again in Houston on Monday night when he put Miami on his back and scored 32 second half points, including going 5-7 from three and vaguely referring to his own performance in mythical terms: “It’s the zone you hear about…” But it wasn’t just the “zone,” it was zero turnovers in 40 minutes, ten rebounds, six assists and an effort that Miami desperately needed in order to get the win. And he wasn’t incentivized the way the most cynical of us like to believe: It wasn’t a primetime TNT game on Thursday, it wasn’t even NBA TV, it was on League Pass and locally for Miami and Houston Residents. It wasn’t against Kobe or the Celtics or in front of Dan Gilbert. It was the Houston Rockets on a Monday night in November.
If we learned one thing from Ol’ Dirty’s far-too-short life, it’s that we need to enjoy our athletes and entertainers while we have the chance. Watch LeBron. You’ll be a better basketball fan for it.