Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anthony Mason, Hip-Hop, and Hunger

I don't write much about basketball anymore. Not sure why. I just kinda stopped. But I need to today. Today, one of my favorite players passed away.

Anthony Mason wasn't a star. He wasn't even a starter until his seventh year in the league. But he had heart, he had toughness, and he had character. He also had skills. He personified an era of Knicks basketball that many, including myself, still remember fondly.

There is a often discussed phenomenon that people love the music they discovered as a teen more than any music before or after. Teenage years are when people develop their own tastes, their own judgements, and their own way of processing meanings. According to a recent article,
Between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones. These hormones tell our brains that everything is incredibly important—especially the songs that form the soundtrack to our teenage dreams (and embarrassments).
I believe the same phenomenon applies to sports teams. Early baby boomers laud the exploits of the 1950s Yankees and late boomers insist the 1969 Mets were nothing short of a miracle, when in fact, both teams were good, but no better than any championship team before or after. But their legend has grown in the hearts of fans who came of age at the same time as these teams.

As a teenager getting into basketball - something no one else in my family was into - the early 90s Knicks teams were my team. I knew little of Willis Reed or Bernard King. As far as I was concerned, Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Charles Oakley, and the rest of the squad were the best incarnation of Knickerbockers ever.

The truth is, while they were a great defensive team, the early 90's Knicks played a brutal, bruising form of basketball. There was little art to their game, only muscle. They bruised and brawned their way to several conference finals where the majesty of Michael Jordan was too much for them to handle. And when Jordan stepped away from the game, the dominance of Hakeem Olajuwon prevented the Knicks from winning their first title since 1973.

But I wasn't the only one who holds the early 90s Knicks in high regard. Pretty much every other Knicks fan over the age of 30 does as well. At least that is my unscientific estimate. I'm sure not every Knicks fan was a teenager in the early 90s. But somehow this team of overachievers and defensive-minded warriors captured the heart of a city and a fanbase.

Likewise, outside of Madison Square Garden, another cultural era blossomed into the hearts of the populace. Coinciding with the Knicks was an era of hip-hop that was also workman-like, gritty, grimy, and full of muscle. It was tough, but not in a "Tougher Than Leather" sort of way. It wasn't big chains and big cars. 90's New York hip-hop was from the staircases, the alleys, and the sewers. It was an era when you had to "Protect Ya Neck" and stay in "A New York State of Mind".

Although basketball and hip-hop have had a long relationship, few teams and musical eras mirrored each other like the Knicks and New York hip-hop in the early 1990s.

Like the Knicks, the 90's NY hip-hop scene wasn't known for it's mainstream appeal, and even those who crossed over once felt the sting of rejection. John Starks and Anthony Mason, for example, could almost be compared to the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA and GZA. Both pairs were signed and released by other organizations. But after they were released, Starks and Mason, like the founders of the Wu-Tang Clan, found a second home and together created something far beyond their individual parts.

Hard elbows and hard beats. Hand checks and verbal dexterity. Arrogance, but not "swagger". Hunger. Grit. Determination to make it on the biggest stage. It was "all eyes on me" before Tupac put it on the cover.

New York's biggest cultural exports in the early 90s both had similar foundations.

Twenty years later, loyalists to the early 90s era bemoan the current state of both New York hip-hop and New York basketball. They try to tell younger generations of days when you had to be hungry, when you had to "work for yours" and represent your team and city. Before NBA stars were "global icons" and rappers were a "business, man".

Twenty years later, loyalists to this era live and die by their memories. They remember Ewing playing hurt. They remember Starks headbutting Reggie Miller and dunking on Horace Grant (and Michael Jordan). They remember Oakley. And they remember Anthony Mason - his defense on the aforementioned Olajuwon, his passing ability, the messages shaved into the side of his head, and his heart. The same heart that did him in yesterday.

As for me, I know I'm still hungry. I still haven't made it to where I want to be. I'm still clawing and I'm still scraping. And I know I still have my Mason jersey somewhere. It should be with my Starks jersey. Although it has been years since I wore Mason's name on my back, I'll have to represent.