This time Michael extols the virtues of his beloved NBA and two of its most colorful characters. Also, “A letter from Home".
I love the NBA. I liken my Love for the game I call “the sport of kings” to an addiction, because as the end of May rolls around and the first, second and third round playoff series have run their course I know that soon the finals will be coming and with them the regret that when complete, the basketball drought will begin in earnest with the potential of rainfall not in the forecast until pre-season begins around my Birthday in late October. The withdrawals start around the middle of June and no other basketball format (yes, I have tried watching the WNBA) seem to fill that longing for my most potent fix. My love for the sport came in my mid-twenties, so I lived the basketball Jones through the eyes of Malone and Stockton, Magic/Kareem, Issah and Aguirre and then later became fixated on his airiness. I can remember going over to my friend Ned Einstein’s house in Valley Village (formerly part of Sherman Oaks), Ca. to watch a mid-November game between the Los Angeles Lakers and their arch rival Boston Celtics and having an epiphany of sorts about how the sport that I loved so paralleled the jazz music I played at the time. I turned to my friend and said, hey Ned, does it occur to you that the game of basketball and the art of jazz are similar. If I remember correctly I think Ned turned to me and said, “What the fuck are you talking about”? Well, look, you have five guys in the starting line-up of a bball team right, and you have five guys potentially (if they can put up with a sax or trumpet player) on the bandstand playing jazz. The five guys on the floor have set plays they are supposed to run dictated by their coach and conveyed to and hopefully implemented by the point guard. On the bandstand you have the five guys in the band, who are playing a jazz standard, let’s say “Giant Steps” by john Coltrane. The play that the basketball coach sends in works sometimes, but oftentimes it doesn’t, so the athletes need to improvise. The jazz Cats on the bandstand improvise after they have played the melody of “Giant Steps”, or whatever as well. Get it? Basketball is “jazz on the hardwood”.
The walk from my log cabin into town on a weekend evening is a trip of beautiful sights, smells and sounds. I try to go into town at least one weekend night a week in pursuit of a fine meal of Stewed Pork, stewed beans, white rice and potato salad. I walk down the Western highway around 6:00 p.m. and the smell of tortilla stands taco carts and the occasional chicken on the grill wafts up from the valley of a darkening Cayo. Along with the aromas there is a cacophony of sounds that are a literal aural gumbo. Punta, reggae, alt-rock and of course Western rap are the selections coming from Home’s, businesses, cars, cell phones and assorted boom boxes. Families are coming out for a night on the town and walking hand and hand dressed to the nines for a quick meal and maybe a cup of ice cream at the Cayo Twist. The word I like to use for the vibe experienced on weekend nights in the Cayo is accredited to my good buddy Freebo. Mr. Freebo and I were on tour in and about 1998 in Europe and on a stopover in Brussels decided we just had to take the train to Amsterdam (what self respecting free spirit wouldn’t). Train tickets purchased, we jumped on the train and headed for one of the more beautiful and certainly most liberal country in the Netherlands. Several hours later we arrived and immediately headed over to the famous Bulldog Café for some “coffee” (Freebo is the one who had the coffee). Sitting on the patio of that café was a trip around the world, as the locals mixed with blacks, semi-blacks, Indian’s, Asians, Americans and every configuration of the “family unit’ you can imagine. Fathers with their kids, Mothers with their kids, Grandparents with kids, older Kids watching younger kids. At some point in our gawking Free-man turned to me and said “you know Michael; one word describes the feel and soul of this town... It’s Civil”. He was absolutely right. What we need a lot more of in this sometimes cruel and uncaring world is a simple bit of civility. That is how the Cayo is on weekend nights...Civil. The sun was setting, the hues of orange, blues and grays fading into night as I walk past the tortillas and the Chinese markets that line the Western highway. I must admit that I turned around more than once hoping maybe my doggie friend Shrimpy would join me on my walk, but the Shrimp-dog was nowhere to be found tonight. I wished him love and was imagining him in a nice yard playing with some giggling kids and wagging his tail. I rounded the last bend into town past the casino (yes, there is a casino in San Ignacio. I went in there one time, promptly lost $2.00 and never returned) and then took the long hill down to the roundabout across from the police station. There are currently two restaurants that I like to procure my Pork and beans from as the recipe for the pork dinner is basically the same at both. The first restaurant as I come into town is named strangely enough “let’s go eat”, but don’t confuse that eating establishment with the restaurant right across the street that is also called “let’s go eat”. If that is not confusing enough, both restaurants’ are owned by the same family. You would think they would put a 1 or a 2 by each of the restaurants’, but I guess it keeps folks guessing. I actually prefer going a little farther into and around town to an interesting place called Hodies. Now Hodies could be considered “Belize Light”, because most of the food on the menu seems to cater to the tastes of a more tourista clientele. Hamburgers and French fries dot the menu as well as chicken wings and “nachos”. The pork at Hodies is a fine bargain thou, as the American items are much more expensive than the indiginous ones. My fabulous meal only sets me back around $8.00 US, which is nice because I am extremely cheap. Anywaaaaaaaays, whilst rounding the last bend to Hodies and walking the additional 300 steps (there is a sign 300 steps away from the restaurant that says, you are now ONLY three hundred steps from Hodies, so how can I not count my footsteps), I spied a game of pickup basketball going on across the street. Now the first person I thought of was my large handsome son. Jarrett started playing his mother’s and my favorite sport of Basketball (the sport of kings) at five years old. I will never forget how proud I was when he made his first basket, even though it was in the opposing team’s hoop. VNSO Park in Van Nuys, Ca. was not a basketball Mecca like the Forum or the Garden were at the time, but there is nothing like watching five and six year olds go at it on the basketball court. No agenda except maybe learning how to dribble the ball and not crying when they mis-handle it. Jarrett played the game all the way past his freshman year of high school until he found a girl friend, a car and the desire to not have to get up at the crack of dawn to be driven to tournaments. He is a wonderful young man (sigh). After feeling nostalgic, I watched the boys some more and reflected on my retirement, what life may hold for me and the twist of fate for one basketball pehenom who was forced to leave the game way to early, but left an indelible mark on the international sporting world.
After nine seasons in the NBA Yao Ming, China’s first and most admired basketball star announced his retirement. As the towering 7 foot 6 inch center for the Huston Rockets, the gentle giant racked up one of the best true-shooting percentages in the NBA history, was an eight time all star, and hugely boosted the popularity of the sport. China is now the largest market for basketball outside of the U.S., but in recent years despite a population of 1.3 billion and a furious state-run athletics programming, China has failed to export a successor to Yao. Ming-Jian Jilian once predicted to be his rightful heir, was dropped by the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent while Sun Yue, the only Chinese national to play point guard in the NBA was dumped by the Lakers after only ten games. Why hasn’t China been able to produce another Yao Ming? The great 2004 documentary about Yao entitled “the Year of the Yao”, directed by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern details the Chinese superstars rise in the basketball community in The United states, despite not knowing a word of English. Drafted by the Huston Rockets he became one of their most popular player’s ever. According to Deo and Stern’s film, the 7 foot 6 inch Ming succeeds his first year in the NBA by finding friendship and support in his American translator, strength in the wisdom of traditional Chinese values, and building confidence in his own abilities on the basketball court. Through it all, Yao Ming became the most recognizable figure from China since Mao Tse Tung and a hero to Millions around the globe.Yao entered the draft in 2002 on the advice of a team of advisers known at the time as “team Yao”. It was predicted that Yao would be picked number one in the draft and after a stint with the Chinese national team the Rockets chose him on draft day. He was the first international player ever picked to have never played any college ball in the U.S. Yao did not participate in Huston’s pre-season games, as he had to fulfill an obligation to play for china in the 2002 FIBA world championships. Many prominent sports analysts and broadcasters including the effusive Dick Vitale predicted that Yao would fail in the NBA and that his career would be short-lived. TNT commentator Charles Barkley said that he would “kiss Kenny smith’s ass” if Yao scored more than 19 points in a single rookie-season game. His first game against the Indiana Pacers Yao scored no points, and managed only 2 rebounds, but finally scored his first basket against the Denver nuggets the following night. In his first seven games he averaged only14 minutes and 4 points, but on November 17, 2002 he scored 20 points and a perfect 9 for 9 from the line against the Lakers. Barkley had to make good on his bet and kissed the rear-end of a donkey that smith had purchased and brought into the TNT studio for the occasion. Yao finished his rookie season averaging 13.5 points per game and 8.2 rebounds and was second in the NBA rookie of the year balloting behind Amar’e Stoudemire, and a unanimous pick for the NBA all-rookie team. Yao finished his second NBA season averaging 17.5 points and 9 rebounds a game and had a career high 41 point 7 assist game in triple overtime against the Atlanta Hawks. That year the Rockets made the playoffs for the first time in Yao’s career claiming the seventh spot in the west, but were eliminated by the Lakers.
After missing only two games out of 246 his first years of NBA play, Yao endured his first stretch on the inactive list after a toe injury required surgery. In his 25 games after the all star break Yao was on a tear averaging 25.7 points and 11.6 “boards” a game, while shooting 53.7 from the field and 87.8% from the line (a percentage virtually unheard of for a big man). Yao endured yet another injury in a game against the Utah jazz suffering a broken bone in his left foot. He was laid up again for six months. In his fifth season he was injured again, this time breaking his knee after attempting to block a shot. After missing 34 games he was cleared to play again and Yao played with the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs scoring 29 points in game seven. Huston was eliminated in that series by the Utah Jazz. Despite the elimination, Yao averaged 25.1 points and 10.3 rebounds in that series. At the end of that season, Yao was selected to just the NBA second team for the first time in his career, after being selected to the all-NBA third team twice. The many and prolonged injuries were obviously taking their toll.
By the time the Rockets 2010-2012 season rolled around, Yao’s injuries began to mount. He was relegated to play only 24 games in limited minutes with the rockets and never on back to back nights. The team’s position was that they were trying to keep Yao healthy for the long term, but by that time the dye had been cast. In December of 2010 he developed a stress fracture in his left ankle and had to miss the rest of the season.Yaos contract with the Rockets had expired and at the end of the season he drifted into free-agency.
On July 20th 2011 Ming announced his retirement from basketball at a press conference in Shanghai. He cited his foot and ankle injuries, including the third fracture of his foot near the end of 2010. His retirement sparked over 1.2 million comments on the Chinese social networking site “Weibo”. Reacting to the news, NBA commissioner David Stern was quoted as saying that Yao”was a bridge between Chinese and American fans”, and that he had “a wonderful mixture of talent, dedication, humanitarian aspirations and a sense of humor. Shaquille O’Neal who became a friend of Yao’s said, “He was very agile. He could play inside, he could play outside, and if he wasn’t plagued with injuries he could have been one of the top five centers to every play in the NBA.
Yao’s influence on Basketball and the basketball community is immeasurable. He inspired Millions of Chinese Basketball fans in a way no Chinese athlete had influenced any sport. He did “bridge the gap” that Stern spoke of in the international awareness of “the sport of kings” throughout the world. As I heard about and reflected on Yao’s retirement I thought of another giant of the game from a very different part of our world. He not only had an impact like Yao on the game of Basketball, but was also a force of political change in his home-land of Southern Sudan.
When people speak of Manute Bol the talk always seems to come back to the story of the Lion. No matter who is speaking of manute Bol-teammates, relatives, fans, friend-whenever they tell stories, they inevitably end up with when he killed the lion. Depending upon where it is told, the story takes different forms. Sitting under a tree one afternoon near the Bol family’s home in Turalei, Sudan, his uncle Bol Chol Bol tells it like this: Manute, a towering teenager charged with caring for his village’s cattle, saw a lion running across the pasture, hungry and desperate for blood. The lion leaped, and Bol launched a spear, goring the predator in midair. Bol Chol Bol tells the story with no hint of hyperbole, no knowing smile. This is the Manute his village Knew, benevolent, fearless, and almost superhuman. These qualities, acquired as a teenager, would accompany Bol as he traveled across the world seeking a career in the NBA.
When manute Bol arrived in the United States from Sudan in 1983, the Lion story arrived with him. When he became the NBA’s first African born player, the tail (get it) served as a fitting anecdote to help understand one of the strangest men they had ever seen who came from a country only faintly loged in their consciousness. Bol wasn’t just tall; he was gigantic at seven feet seven inches. So tall, that he needed to duck his head when going through doorways and barely had to strain when dunking a basketball through the net. So tall, he towered over all the other seven footers in the NBA. And Bol was skinny-185 pounds when he arrived in the states, so skinny that he looked like a skeleton unprotected by only flesh, covered by skin and spindly muscle, each limb a twig with just enough support to keep the body functioning. Skinny enough that Woody Allen had joked that to save money on road trips; “Manute Bol can be faxed from one city to the next”. Bol was also black, so black to American journalists’ eyes that they devised new ways to say black-“A moonless midnight”, “darker than dark”, phrases intended to signal that Bol’s skin color was that of a warrior, a tribesman, from a land unseen and a people unknown. Bol’s was the black of a man who had killed a lion. In the cannon of manute Bol’s mythology, the tale of the lion is but one volume. The others spring from storytellers scattered across two continents, each emphasizing a different aspect of Bol’s complex and multifarious life. “He had this swagger”, a former NBA player begins, “this incredible regal stature about him”. Others focus less on his personality and more on his actions. According to his daughter, “he would do anything for his people”. “I would never say a bad word about Manute, remarks his agent, “but I’ve got to tell you, he abandoned his family”. His uncle introduces listeners to Bol by speaking about how strong he was as a baby. An American friend starts off by saying how weak he was in his final days. In Turalei, a young generation of boys grew up learning about Bol’s triumphs in a distant land. “He was rich”, a nephew remembers hearing as a child. “He was famous”. Too many at home, however, success mattered little. “Manute”, says a fellow country man “is Sudan”. Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court winning games, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol. Not everyone bought the lion story. When Manute played for the Philadelphia 76ers in the early ‘90s, his teammate Charles Barkley walked into the locker room one day saying that he’d just read about the lion “feat” in the newspaper. Barkley looked across the room at Bol. “Man, you didn’t kill no lion”, he said. “That lion was old and dead when you showed up”. Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley”, he said. Mantue’s trip to the NBA was not without critical roadblocks. At 7”8’ tall he looked like a circus act and when it was revealed that Mugesy Bouges was to be chosen in the draft with him, all of the sports writers as well as most of the basketball loyal though it was a publicity stunt. Imagine, if you will this darker than dark man from the Sothern Sudan who looks like one of the spider aliens from The War of the Worlds, standing at the free throw line next to Bouges who barley topped the 5”5 inch mark and you get the picture. Regardless, the coaching staff believed that manute could make an impact and mugsey, could, well be the shortest player ever in the NBA. Although Manute did play a short while in the Khartoum basketball league, he epitomized the phrase “a work in progress” and despite his huge stature, had to work hard on his offensive game. Sure he could dunk the ball with ease, barley having to rise up on his tiptoes to make it happen, but in the post where his game should have and could have flourished, he struggled completing simple layups and on fast breaks his timing was poor. He could “lope” down the court, but he would accomplish this on his spindly legs in eight strides while his teammates were still working on securing the rebound. What manute could do was block shots and if he didn’t block the shot outright he would cause so much havoc under the basket with his size, that players would be forced to try something too creative and miss the shot. Bol became famous (before Denver center Dikembe Mutumbo) at blocking a players shot, waging his finger at the culprit and saying “get that out of here” in his Dinka inflected accent. Players on both teams would crack up when this happened. During a mid-season game between the 76rs and the Chicago Bulls in 91, Michael Jordan came down the court crossed over and did what Michael does best; drove to the basket. As he crossed into the lane, Manute was there ready to block the shot, but Jordan flew into the air and scored, sending Manute flailing into his own bench. Not one to admit defeat under the basket, Bol went on and on about how one of his teammates must have missed the switch (a defensive assignment), as it was impossible that Jordan was simply too quick and strong to score so easily. The fans in Philadelphia, as well as the end of his career Golden State loved manute. He always wanted to be a jump shooter and was given the green light when behind the three point line as the fans would always encourage him to launch it up. He made a few, but most of his attempts just clanged off the rim, or aired into the crowd. As Manute’s popularity in the NBA grew so did his bank account. He was making several million a year in his heyday, but had no clue how to handle his money. What he didn’t drink and gamble away he would give to relatives and friends whenever he was asked and sometimes when he wasn’t. He married a Dinka women who he brought to the states and had several children. Although he was living life as a bonafide American with all the trappings of the states, his thoughts never strayed far from his home land of Sudan as conflicts raged on throughout the 90s. He felt he had to be involved somehow in the political process in an effort to elicit change in his native country, so he began funneling significant amounts of this money to various groups with the desire of creating an independent South Sudan. A country he and his Dinka relatives could call their own. The NBA began to wear on manute as his spider-like body could never pack on any muscle. The injuries to his legs and feet mounted, and when it was apparent his career was at an end Manute returned to the Sudan to live with his wife, kid’s and other family members. He had a little money saved, but continued to contribute to the liberation of South Sudan organizations. Soon he was penniless. After a divorce he was forced to move in with friends in neighboring Khartoum. By this time his health had diminished, complicated by a car accident that left him unable to walk without the use of a cane and latter on crutches. Despite his deteriorated physical condition, Manute was a hero in his village and to the entire South Sudan. His exploits in America were legendary and the kids would always aspire to be him and move to America someday for their piece of the American dream. Manute attended conferences and events for for a free Sudan even though travel was difficult. The numerous injuries to his fragile body coupled with the unfortunate car accident led to his death at only forty one years old. The legacy of manute Bol lives on as I watch the UN confirm the former South Sudan as the newest country of Juba. Juba’s independence from the south doesn’t mean that the warring factions have settled their differences, or that there won’t be additional disagreements and conflicts, but wouldn’t it have been great if Bol had been alive to see it happen? What would have life been like for the big man? I would like to think that he would have a special place in the transition of his new country as ambassador or something equally prestigious. I know for sure he would have been filled with pride that his beloved homeland was finally able to break the bonds that tie and move on as its own country.
“home again, maybe I’m home again, home again, home again, I never think about home, but then comes a letter from home”...Something impossible is set into motion”. Miss Iris was kind enough to give me a ride from my cabin of logs to the bus departure zone in downtown San Ignacio. We left around nine in the hope I could catch the ten o’clock from the Cayo to Belize City. It was a dreary Sunday morning in my adopted Central American country and the time had come for me to head back to the people I Love. I had all of my worldly possessions in tow (again) and as I dragged two suitcases, my computer bag and my backpack with me I vowed that if and when I made this trip again that the only thing I would take would be what I could schlep on my shoulders. You see, the bus situation is not the kind you may be used to in the states. You may remember in the good ole days taking the bus to school or on a field trip with the seats that look like they were made before the Second World War. These are the type of buses that folks use in the Cayo. My transportation for the day finally pulled into the lot around 10:45 BST (Belizean standard time), and it was already packed with travelers on their way to various parts of the country. I heaved my stuff up and into the back door, squeezing it around a Mayan gentleman who was holding a bouquet of cotton candy that was on its way to a festival in one of the many city stops on the way, and rushed through the front door in order to grab a seat. Unfortunately all the seats were already filled by families on their outings and I was forced to stand. The bus ride to Belize City is around three hours and I didn’t mind standing at first, as I knew that as usual, there would be many stops along the way and a seat would open up eventually. After an hour into my trek I was still standing and I really needed to relieve myself. Keep in mind that every time a town would appear, the bus has to slow to a crawl, as all of the hamlets have speed bumps. The speed bumps, combined with my erect position, coupled with the fact that I don’t have the best bladder control in the first place made an uncomfortable trip virtually unbearable, as I continued standing for the remainder of the over three hour trip into The former capital city of Belize (I say former because when a hurricane came in and decimated Belize city in 1971, the powers that be decided it wise to move the capital inland to the city of Belmopan. Why tempt fate?). I made a beeline for the bathroom at the terminal and then set out on my quest to negotiate the cheapest cab ride from the bus depot to my hotel, which is about ten blocks into the heart of downtown. My fare negotiated, I told the cabbie (Eduardo) to take me to the Conningsby. The Conningsby is the hotel that I stayed in approximately a month ago when I first arrived in Belize, and seeing that it was Sunday, during the rainy season I figured “no problem Senor, we are wide open, pick any room you like”. Drunk with power, I relieved Eduardo and sauntered up to the front desk. “Room for the night please”, I said with complete conviction. “Oh I sorry sir, we all booked for the night”. It didn’t register immediately, because I felt like I was still on the bus, but after my daydream was over and I was shot back into reality I said, “what”?She looked at me more directly this time and said “we have no vacancy”. No room at the inn...Jesus wept, and so did I...almost. “Well, do you have any suggestions”? The young lady told me that there is a hotel called the Caribbean Palms about four blocks up that she is POSOTIVE has rooms available. The POSOTIVE part should have been a clue that his particular hotel was not the most pleasant, but at this point in the proceeding I had pretty much exhausted my options, as the hotel situation in the beautiful former capital of Belize is a bit limited. So, I rolled my suitcases up the street four blocks to the glamorous Caribbean Palms hotel. The best way to describe the room I rented for the night, which actually turned into two nights is to say that it cost $30.00 BZ ($15.00 US) a night. No hot water, no television, just four concrete wall, a fluorescent light overhead and an alley in the back with cars racing through it all night long. Exhausted, I laid down on the rocks that would be my mattress and tried to nap. Around six Sunday evening it was time to find some food. Now I am not terribly picky about my meals, but when it comes to dinner after a hard day on the road, I do like to actually sit down to some sort of semi-healthy meal, so I asked the proprietor of the “Palms”, what she could suggest. Upon asking, she looked at me incredulously and said “sir, it is Sunday in Belize City, you will be lucky to find any restaurant open”. Have I mentioned that I walk everywhere? Belize City is not considered a walking kinda town, but there I was 6:00 on a Sunday evening heading into a virtually deserted town to find a stewed pork dinner. I walked into the district called Freetown thinking maybe at least a neighborhood establishment would be open, but no luck. After an hour or so I spied in the distance the Princess Casino. Now they would have to have some sort of restraint. Sure enough the Calypso dinner appeared toward the back half of this abomination of mid 80s architecture and I entered the casino on my way to a bowl of chicken soup. Chicken soup eaten along with about a loaf of garlic bread I casually walked through the casino wondering if there was something else I could do to kill off the evening so I wouldn’t have to go back to the God forsaken hotel I paid 15.00US for the privilege of staying in. Sure enough I noticed a poster, in Spanish advertising Transformers 3, “The Dark of the Moon”. I asked the ticket taker what time it starts and within five minutes I was sitting in the very air conditioned theater watching Proteus beat the crap out of the bad robot Transformer dude in Spanish. At first I was a bit bummed that my “film” was in Espanola, but as I continued to watch I realized that it didn’t matter much and the movie was so bad that dialogue I could understand would have made it worse. Suffice to say that there were a lot of explosions, and fighting robots. I was so exhausted by the end of this fine film that I felt like I had run an ultra-marathon. The movie finally came to a merciful end with the good guy Bot reconciling with his human buddy Shia Lebouef in the most wooden piece of acting ever put on a piece of Celluloid, or whatever it is they use now. My walk back was uneventful with the exception of a stop at the Chinese ice cream parlor for a cone. Back at the “Palms” I turned off the florescent overhead light and shut off my brain. 4:30am came early (well when doesn’t 4:30 in the morning come early?), but I suppose the early bird does get the worm. Worm in hand I headed out to find a nice cup of coffee. I food myself at the Radisson, and trying to look respectable I sauntered in for a cup of Joe. My goal today (Monday) was to get my teeth worked on by Dr, Adrian at 3:00, then high tail it for Cancun, where I would spend the night before my journey back to Arvada, Colorado. Home again, home again jiggery jig.
Home again, never goin’ home again, think about home again, I never think about home, but then comes a letter from home, the handwriting is fragile and strange. Something unstoppable is set into motion. Nothing is different, but everything is changed.
Until next time...Please Love
Sources: “The Defender”/”The year of the Yao”/Michael’s Brain