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Saturday
Apr082017

Russell Westbrook's Historic Rise - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Sports holds a dominant position over the hearts and minds
of its fans for many reasons. One of those prominent reasons
is the fact that there are records that have been set in various
sports that to the naked eye, not only seem impossible to obtain
but to even break. Off the top of the head, there's baseball with
Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak and Cal Ripken Jr.'s streak
of 2,630 consecutive games played. The lone undefeated season
record in NFL history still celebrated by the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
And in basketball, outside of Wilt Chamberlain's 100 points in a
game, the only other record that seemed out of reach was Oscar
Robertson's averaging a triple-double for the entire NBA season.

Until Russell Westbrook made this season one for the ages.

The 2016-17 NBA season was one major uncertainty for Westbrook
and his Oklahoma City Thunder. Mainly because the emphasis in
that first sentence was now firmly placed on the word "his" - Kevin
Durant made his fateful decision to join the Western Conference
rival and one of the best teams in the league, the Golden State
Warriors in the offseason. Adding to this, Durant apparently left
Westbrook out of any discussion over his choice, leaving a wide rift
between the two that hadn't even been realized before. Sports
media and fans ate it up because if there's anything that both
parties love these days, it's discord spread out on webpages and
newspaper print like a seafood feast at City Island. A lot of people
had an opinion that the Thunder & Durant were being hindered
because of Russell's all-out play which sometimes led to the disruption
of the team's offense. There was always this cloud hanging over
the team, a squad many felt could do better than one Finals trip
since both KD and Russell were drafted. A lot of blame was put
on Westbrook. I admit that I had my own doubts about him.

The thing about crisis when it appears is, it will show you what
disappears and what remains.

If there is one thing that can never be questioned after this NBA
season, no matter how the Thunder end up in the postseason, it's
that Westbrook's ability to lead a team through play and example
can never be in doubt ever again. The fact that he's averaged a
triple-double for the season is staggering enough on the surface
given the role of today's NBA player with outside commitments and
a more compact and rigorous schedule and international play. It
is when you dig deeper into the numbers that you realize that he
tapped into something that will further enshrine him in the legacy
of the game. Consider this - when he clinched the triple-double
season average this past Friday night against the Phoenix Suns,
he didn't even GET that stat in full - six assists that night put him
squarely in the average. Another point to look at - this season he
accomplished two rarities. He managed a triple-double without
missing either a shot attempt or a free throw. Also, he is the
first player since Karl Malone to average a double-double in rebounds
and scoring. On a slightly more dubious note, he also notched 
a quadruple double - with 10 turnovers in a loss. 

Photo Credit: Sporting News

All of this has occurred while he has been part of a dominant
and sometimes overwrought soap opera plot - will he and Durant
ever be cool again? That was what played out week after week
as the season began, with KD quotes that weren't too flattering
of Russ and his squad, and Westbrook effectively not making any
statements in kind except one social media image that spoke
volumes - a picture of a cupcake. The drama continued until
the All-Star Game in New Orleans, where one lob assist between
the two served as the knife to sever all that tension. But through
it all, Westbrook has not only proven he can lead a team, but that
he deserves to be put in the superstar pantheon along with Lebron,
Stephen Curry and Durant.  And SHOULD be the MVP - I don't 
want to hear any more waffling or statements that he and James
Harden of the Houston Rockets(who's having a fine season himself)
should share the award. Nope. Especially when you consider that
Oklahoma City at the sixth seed will face Harden's Rockets in the
first round and could knock them out of it. Would you want to
make a strong bet against Westbrook? In this scenario, I wouldn't.

When records fall, you don't really grasp the magnitude until days
after. The initial hot takes subside. History announces itself again
through the eyes of those who recall witnessing it or having heard
enough about it through those witnesses. The fact that Westbrook
did this as Oscar Robertson is still present to see it, is something
that should get your heart warmed up and should make you see
the similarities between the two. Robertson was a consumate scorer
and playmaker to the point that he raised ire and jealousy from a
former Boston Celtics great who was his teammate and coach, Bob
Cousy in Cincinatti. He also was key to NBA players having a say in
their own financial future through the advent of free agency. For
Westbrook, his sense of style and his moments where he has to
check reporters (we all know the famous mean mug he once gave
in the locker room) has set him apart from other players. That and
his unwavering commitment to the Thunder has softened even
some of his most volatile critics. It will be something to see how
the two greet each other in the wake of this regular season.

 

Wednesday
Mar082017

Hip-Hop Philanthropy In The Trump Era - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: HerCampus.com


We’re currently 47 days into the new Presidential administration
of Donald Trump. And it is safe to say that there is one word alone
that can leap to the minds of many to describe it - okay, two -
uncertain chaos. From the travel ban that has targeted Muslims
from six nations to rapidly increased deportation of immigrants
to frenzied deregulation, not to mention the tremendous cloud of
suspicion of foreign manipulation in the election and thus the
government, uncertain chaos is more than appropriate to depict
the feeling. And of course, people of color are squarely in the
crosshairs. What else can you call it when your current Secretary
of Housing and Urban Development is a Black evangelical conservative
neurosurgeon
who makes more news for ridiculous statements
and looking like a bemused doorman at press events? This climate
is why we celebrate news such as what took place in Chicago this
past Monday.

Chance The Rapper went back to his hometown and held a 
press conference at Wescott Elementary School to announce that
he was donating one million dollars to the Chicago Public Schools
system. This was after he met with Governor Bruce Rauner of
Illinois and went away with a high level of dissatisfaction with
possible bureaucratic stonewalling. The news generated a large
amount of buzz - but this is nothing new to Chance. The rapper
has been a keen advocate for the people of Chicago, from organizing
marches to the polling booths this past November to raising
over $60,000 for a charity that donated sleeping bags and
jackets to the homeless to now having a seat on the board
at the prestigious DuSable Museum.

Photo Credit: OurBKSocial.com

Jay-Z has also made great strides in this regard, announcing
this week that he is launching Arrive, a new company that
will be dedicated to helping startups launch successfully. This
is separate from his other startup ventures and expands on
his past contributions to these companies. Combine that with
his production efforts and placement of TIME: The Kalief 
Browder Story
, a documentary now airing on Spike TV that
chronicles the tragedy of a young man from the Bronx who
was imprisoned on Rikers Island without being charged for
three years. Browder was then released, and took his own
life shortly thereafter in 2015. The rapper will also be hosting
a town hall with fellow executive producer Harvey Weinstein
in conjunction with tonight’s broadcast. Jay-Z has stepped up
to bat for the people increasingly over the past few years in
both a public and private manner. In addition, Ice Cube also
is wrapping up a campaign to raise money for autism research
through sales of clothing bearing one of his popular lyrics.

So, why should this matter to you?

To have artists that engaged who is willing to use their
platform to mobilize and inform people is a wonderful thing to
see. It also may be the beginning of a resurgence of rappers
getting back and giving back in an increased fashion. It goes
without saying that there is going to be some skepticism
aimed towards rappers doing this. The easy play that is
enabled by some media elements (and reinforced by some
artists and their escapades) is that rappers are nothing
more than rapacious and unrepentant “thugs”. This is
the stick used to divide, demean and ultimately cause
indifference to suffering overall. This is what has to be
ignored. Some of us have spent quite some time wondering
why some artists don’t give back more to the community.
In a way, some do that to mask their own indifference or
chosen lack of engagement (I stress the word “chosen”
because it has to be said that not everyone is in a position
to give of themselves to causes depending on their situation.)
Having examples like this matter because it inspires others.
And in a way, it allows other people to not only get involved
with other actions from local groups and advocates but to
further spread the message to their circles. In an era
where news can spread like a wildfire thanks to social
media, the impact of these initiatives speak volumes. Is
it a replacement for the funds that will be lost to deregulation
and budget cuts like the one slated for NYCHA and the
Environmental Protection Agency? No. But in the face of
such stark change, one gesture can spur others. And we
need them more than ever. As much as we need more 
of the people to get involved, more than ever. 

 

Wednesday
Mar012017

How An Iceberg Becomes An Oasis - Chris "Preach" Smith


Photo Credit: Dandig.net

 

“I was born with small access to big dreams…”


That line opens up “Built By Pictures”, the third track from
the latest album by the prodigious producer and MC from 
Washington D.C., Oddisee. The album, and the artist, stand
poised to be another triumph of heart against and over the
vulgarities of the current administration of the United States.
The very name of the album, The Iceberg, holds a meaning
that the late Ralph Ellison would’ve chuckled at in appreciation
of it. It fits very well with Oddisee, who’s made a strong 
career due to carefully crafted atmospheric beats and lyricism
that provoke a great deal of emotions. The Iceberg dropped
last Friday, and the rapper is gearing up for another world
tour. This go-round, he’s gotten sponsorship from Carhartt
and another level of fans’ interest due to his message that
touches upon the Black American experience in the post-Obama
era as well as his own experience being Muslim in America
coupled with facing the xenophobia of the Trump travel ban
that affected seven nations including Sudan, where his father
hails from. 

Pushing all the talk of the latest rap beef aside for a moment,
I got a chance to truly listen to this album last night in lieu
of listening to the presidential address that had some elements
of the media and others rapturous because the president
barely managed to restrain his bombastic and narcissistic
tendencies. Hearing the album of someone who has literally
dealt with xenophobia masked as national security and patriotism
every time he’s traveled even though he was born here has
an entirely different note of truth to it. The Iceberg clocks in
at less than an hour overall, and it makes an ideal companion
to a walk in the city or as a backdrop to anything you’re working
on. Make no mistake though, Oddisee doesn’t create music that
lets you forget or even puts you in a place to cast aside thoughts.
“You Grew Up” is a perfect example. He speaks about both the
racism he experienced growing up in Prince Georges County in
Maryland and how such ire can lead to those choosing a life of
extremism no matter the place. This ability to express insight
into both sides of a contentious debate without sugarcoating
is something politicos and others could learn a great deal from.
This same introspection also shines through in tracks regarding
his own viewpoint on the current state of the rap game as well
as relationships and one’s own maturity.

Perhaps the best indicator of how impactful Oddisee is becoming
lies in one scene from a cold and crisp weekend afternoon out
on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I passed by a bodega with a sign
that simply said, “Our families are American families like yours.”
The door swung open, and what was playing? “Like Really”, from
the album. Sometimes the best message is one with more
feeling and heart than empty words. The Iceberg brings that
ideal home to anyone who has a true appreciation for what that
means in these troubled days. 

 

Saturday
Feb112017

The Disgrace Of The Garden - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: ESPN Images

As long as I have watched and loved basketball, I have 
watched and been a fan of the New York Knicks.

The events of the past two and a half days have
made me now question that loyalty more severely.
And it hasn’t been since 2007 since I’ve felt this way.

By now, you’ve heard and seen the incident where
former Knicks great Charles Oakley was confronted
by security at Madison Square Garden Wednesday
in the first quarter of a home game against the Los
Angeles Clippers. The entire nation got to see how
Oak was accosted and then dragged over to the
tunnel by security officers and handcuffed while on
the ground thanks to the game being broadcast on
ESPN. The whole scene was surreal, and adds to
the utter embarassment that has surrounded the
franchise for over a decade. Never mind the fact that
the Knicks are in possession of a losing record(again)
or that there is discord surrounding the star forward,
Carmelo Anthony(again) or that there is now a battle
between Anthony and the front office, mainly Phil
Jackson that resembles a cast off scene from “The
Vampire Diaries.” The entire nation now has something
else to hang on the Knicks as a franchise that was
a has been.

But no, we just can’t have this die down. We have an
owner in James Dolan who HAS to essentially dance
among the flames with a kerosene can. That was my
thinking as I caught transcripts of his infamous radio
interview with Michael Kay on his show yesterday
afternoon where Dolan basically not only painted Oak
as a drunken and abusive menace, but essentially
confirmed that he would be temporarily banned from
Madison Square Garden. Hearing the interview and
seeing Dolan sit there with a smug look on his face
as he danced around questions and kept belittling
Oakley’s character was and is galling. But not out of
the ordinary for him.

Photo Credit: New York Daily News

Yet and still, the treatment of Charles Oakley by Dolan
and his staff is disgraceful. James Dolan has proven that
if there is a cancerous element that lives within the New
York Knicks organization, it is him. When you take into
account that the franchise since the ‘Melo trade with the
Denver Nuggets has gone through at least four coaches
and EIGHTY different players on the roster, his insistence
on getting the deal done without any sense of reason is
to blame. Fans have long been incensed at an owner who
hasn’t seen fit to even look towards Patrick Ewing (PATRICK
EW-ING if you want to keep it real as the announcers would
do it)for any position in the organization outside of a
D-League coaching stint. An owner who created chaos via
his friendship with NBA great Isiah Thomas by hiring him
as the GM and seemingly looking the other way with regards
to his actions in the role until a former executive with the
team, Anucha Browne Sanders, had to sue him and Thomas
for sexual harassment. A case that she won in 2007, but
not after a great deal of denial and an environment where
she was unable to find work after. It was at that point where
I started to be jaded about the team’s direction. And it got
more so when word got out a few years later that Dolan
was willing to hire Thomas AGAIN despite the fact that he
and MSG had to cough up $12 million in damges to be in
the front office. That was when then-commissioner David
Stern had to step in to stop the madness and insist that
Dolan hire Donnie Walsh, who had a rep as a good team
builder with his years overseeing the Indiana Pacers.

Think about that a moment. A business magnate who feels
he has a wealth of knowledge and will double down on his
mistakes. You’d be remiss if that didn’t remind you of the
current president of these United States. But that is the
mindset of someone who not only feels they can do no
wrong, but is emboldened by the fact that the end results
prove that no matter what, they will still turn a profit.
And that is the bedrock of fans’ frustration. Dolan still is
the chairman and owner of the Knicks, the one constant
that drives the team and as such, has driven them to be
a near-annual laughing stock. Despite the woes, the team
still ranks among the top of the league in profits through
ticket sales and net worth. He knows it. And he more than
likely feels he doesn’t have to change. Couple that with
the fact that he’s also overseeing the Rangers hockey team
which are perennial playoff contenders and he’s in clover.
But winning seasons are never guaranteed, and consistent
losing will drain your profits.

Let’s break it all the way down. Dolan has now picked a
battle that he will not win. Charles Oakley, for his time
here was the heart and soul of a basketball team and city
that despite the veneer of glitz and glamour posseses a
core of grit, hard work, pride and passion. Oakley was and
is never one to shy away from expressing his opinion. He
and Dolan have had beef for YEARS because Oak will speak
his mind. Oak has been critical of the team because he
loves the team. Oak is still beloved throughout the league
and outside of it because of that. Removing him in that
fashion is, whether intentional or not, an embodiment of
how native New Yorkers have been feeling over the past
sixteen years when you take into account the rising rents,
gentrification and other factors that have changed the overall
look and feel of the city to where they feel like outsiders.

With regards to last Wednesday, I look at it like this. Oakley
went there to take in the game and needle Dolan a bit. The
man has smacked up teammates in the face (I still recall the
time that he gave a two-piece to a teammate in Toronto
during his time there before practice), but I don’t think he
was gonna go and be reckless enough to assault Dolan. All
he has wanted was a sit down with him, face to face. In
return, Dolan has privately shut Oak out of any interactions
with the team that would strengthen ties. If sources are
correct, that has even been exercised through Allan Houston,
a former player with the Knicks who is now in the front office
and reportedly won’t even take his calls. Oakley had been
asked to leave at another game in November, but this was
done in a discreet manner. As much as Oak wanted to maybe
jab Dolan by being in the same section, Dolan took it to an
entirely different level by escalating the situation with a large
security detail and then having the PR staff issue not one, but
TWO brief statements that attempt to paint Oakley as an abusive
drunk.

If you’re trying to spin it that way, you are in effect trying to
gaslight the public.

Photo Credit: SBNation

If I’m NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, I would be in the
midst of preparing a lengthy sitdown with James Dolan
with this in mind: either you sit down in a mediated
conference with Charles Oakley to get this resolved or
you may have to consider stepping down from your
position and letting someone else be the public face of
the team. Because this will only hurt the New York
Knicks in the long run. The league took great measures
to get Donald Sterling to give up ownership of the Los
Angeles Clippers, but it wasn’t until decades of his
racially antagonistic behavior became too much to bear
for the league to let him continue in that stead. I’ve
had talks with a lot of my friends who feel Dolan needs
to give up ownership of the team along those lines. I
am not confident it will happen unless Silver and other
owners feel that their business overall will be hurt by
what’s going on. There’s already word going around that
potential free agents were wary of coming to New York
to begin with. It’s doubtful that’s improved after this weel.
To that end, disrguntled fans will have to make their
displeasure known in the best way they can. Don’t go to
games, protest. One of my close friends wound up putting
together a campaign stemming from one video 2 years
ago that helped to voice all of the frustration of fellow fans.
“We Want Oakley” will be a constant chant at home games
going forward if the game against the Denver Nuggets last
night was any indication. Money talks where other forms
of speech aren’t heard.

It’s high time to get rid of the disgrace at The Garden. 

Saturday
Dec242016

True Magic of The Travelin' Man - Chris "Preach" Smith

Photo Credit: Author

“In those days it was either live with music or die with noise,
and we chose rather desperately to live.”

- Ralph Ellison

The thing about being a witness to history is, the moment can
be heightened by simple connections of events. I thought about
this as I made my way back home 48 hours ago from the venerable
Apollo Theater in Harlem, after seeing one of the last concerts
that will ever be peformed by Yaasin Bey, formerly Mos Def. My
main man sent word that he had been given a pair of tickets,
we made plans to link up, and once at the venue, we wound
up being there no more than twenty minutes before being
invited to sit in the front row. Call it karma, call it divinity at
work, call it good fortune - it made the scene that much more
magical.

Magic is the word that you will more than likely bear witness
to the most in this post. Undeniable Black magic.

From the moment Yaasin appeared on stage bearing a basket
of rose petals for every soul who ever appeared on the Apollo
stage, to the triumphant ovation at the end, true magic was
the mode of the evening. Like almost everyone else in the
first three rows save for one or two, I stood up for the entire
show. Black and gold balloons dotted the stage, as part of
Yaasin’s celebratory salute to the late Jean-Michel Basquiat
who’s birthday was on the same day. Two little girls came out
to join him in kicking most of the balloons out into the crowd,
as we sang the Stevie Wonder “Happy Birthday” song. From
there, Yaasin ripped through his discography like a true maestro.
He was tapped into all of our emotions. So much so that at
key moments, he was overwhelmed to tears. Each time, the
audience clapping and shouting love to him. Thankful for what
he spoke, and sang. Thankful for the breaks where he cracked
jokes. Thankful for the energy, both the mindful strains and
the high octane further strengthened by a guest appearance
from Pharoahe Monch for “Oh No” and “Simon Says”.

True magic. Enough so that at moments you didn’t realize
how warm it was in the place until the song ended and the
sweat collected on your brow like commuters at a bus stop.
It was a bonafide house party in the Apollo. Yaasin made it
comfortable, embracing. A man who in the past few years
has obviously seen and been impacted by so much. This show
was a house party for the soul, so needed after this year.
No pretensions. No airs. Just the freedom to…be. It was
evident in the way he danced throughout. Whirling, moving
like the dervishes of Sufism. And as he did “Umi Says”…he
stopped and listened to the crowd sing his own words with
him, to him. The light multiplied in his eyes. True magic.
True Black magic. Radiating throughout “Pretty Dancer”, 
resounding as he rocked “Mathematics”.

If this is indeed the finale of Yaasin’s career as an entertainer,
then what he has given us in that time is nothing short 
of epic. Undeniable truth and joy. Black magic that connects,
moves and manifests. And amplifies. As we all stepped 
out into the lights and sounds of 125th Street, that gift 
still sits in the spirit. Life, in malevolent but still marvelous
times.