(Continued from "Before the Last Shot: The Legend of the Puma Clyde")
But is it the shoes?
The legend continues with tributes to Clyde on Knicks halftime shows, MSG ads, and "classic" retellings on nbatv. Most importantly, the legend lives as a vital narrative in the Lig-view. It remains a major voice in the world of ball, perhaps most prominently spoken by Scoop Jackson.
Jackson identifies himself as an insider in the universe of the Puma Clyde. To solidify his authority, he plays the experience-card and mimics the "jazzy" style of the Clyde era. Scoop on shoes:
But for most of us – sneak freaks, shoe heads, ekins, sole collectors, kicksologists – the shoe game is one that is built on nothing else but passion.
Passion for design. Passion for style. Passion for performance, product, originality and rareness. Passion for Airness. Over the last 25 years, there has existed an international subculture unlike any other in the world. One that has connected different races, different religions, different lifestyles, different ways of life. All differences pushed to the side, accepted and ignored, all for the passion.
And when someone doesn't understand the power...we internalize our passion.
Like the Clyde Legend, Jackson promotes an ethos of individual self-expression, the injustice of on-going racism in the United States, the defiance of a "race rebel", and the simultaneous desire to be accepted by mainstream culture. You see, even as he talks about "internalizing our passion" for the shoe, he does so on the most popular sports website in the world.
To better understand Jackson's version of the Clyde Legend, let's look back to his comments in August when Jackson decided to wear a Bonds jersey "in defiance." He wrote,
"Watching what Aaron went through when I was a kid, a spot in my soul resented what Babe Ruth and 'America's game' stood for. Made me feel like the part of the Constitution that considered my grandfather three-fifths of a human being. We'll call it defiance...
"Defiance is part of the existence of who we are. It becomes part of our DNA in times like this, when one of our own seems to be rightfully accused but wrongly treated. It's a convoluted, twisted sense of purpose fueled by a sanctimonious and overtly self-righteous coverage of someone who may have committed a sin in the hell baseball had become. We are defiant in times like these because others are being made saints and bigger heroes at the expense of Bonds. Aaron has entered some sort of mythical sainthood. A-Rod, all of a sudden, is as pure as Rahsaan Patterson's voice or Don Cheadle's acting. We are defiant in times like these because even when we have advantages, the playing field is not level, not for us..."
Jackson's worldview harkens back to the days of Aaron, of repulsive segregation, of brutal racial hate crimes, of Jim Crowe America. Jackson's biases are understandable in that he is more committed to a political project than historical accuracy. (A-Rod, a "mythical saint"???) But caught in the Clyde Legend, he resorts more often to cheerleading than analysis. And in a tricky juggling act, he desperately tries to maintain his privileged perspective even as he promotes it to the mainstream.
He ended his article with one more "defiant" salvo:
A young black man at a public library had on a Michael Vick jersey one day last week. I walked up to him, thinking about my Bonds jersey. Said, "You big for wearing that." He simply said, "Thanks." Then, almost as an afterthought, he said, "I think he's guilty as hell, but I still got his back."
We too had something in common. As we should.
It is this type of "defiance" that gets Jackson into trouble. In his promotion of figures like Vick and Bonds as "race rebels." In his furious attempt to locate the next Puma Clyde, he creates questionable moral equivalences between the likes of Aaron and Bonds.
At the same time, it is not just the purportedly hegemonic white culture against which Jackson writes. Jackson's vision coalesces around an earlier era of Civil Rights rhetoric (most prominent in the Black Power movement of the 70s) and competes with other understandings of racism in the Unitd States. Significantly, Jackson and the Legend Clyde do not adopt (but defy) the more recent analyses of the early 90s "Hoop Dreams" and The Last Shot.
The "Hoop Dream" argued against the power of the individual to overcome social injustice. It was about, as John Edgar Wideman wrote, a "serious game." And in this way, it challenges the fantasy and progressive narrative of the Puma Clyde.
Darcy Frey's The Last Shot was set in a land of dreams, of "monster dunks" and magical summer growth spurts, of fairy godmothers named Harstein, Disco, and Mr. Lou. It was a story of a secret "Garden," "hidden behind the projects are dozens of courts, and every night they fill with restless teenagers, who remain there for hours until exhaustion or the hoodlums take over."
But, unlike the Legend of the Puma Cldye, The Last Shot unravels into a tragedy in which kids learn that "guys who work hard always get screwed." And in this way, Frey transforms legends like the Puma Clyde into adolescent fantasies. Behind the basketball fairy tale lies fallen forebrothers like Chocolate, Silk, and Jou-Jou. A world where basketball camps breed selfishness, and vultures with names like PJ and Pitino loom on the sidelines. In Frey's telling, basketball becomes not a way out but an entrance into the social corruption of early 90s America.
Just so, in the "Hoop Dream" Arthur Agee and William Gates do not become the next Isiah (now even more interesting an idol than ever.) Agee is kicked out of St Joe's when his skills do not develop as quickly as the coach wants. Gates injures his knee and misses his junior year. Gates' senior year is his worst. After his brother Curtis gets him to the big game twenty minutes late, Gates does not start, and St Joe's loses in the second round of the playoffs.
In fact, perhaps the most optimistic note in the film comes not from basketball at all. Yes, Agee spurs his team onto an unlikely final four finish in the state 'ships, but we leave him looking down and discouraged in his junior college dorm. The most hopeful note in the film comes from Agee's mother. She earns her nursing certification with the top score in her class.
Like Frey's book, "Hoop Dreams" presents basetball as morally corrupt world. And it's in understated irony that the film most poignantly argues this point. In the nickname Agee's family gives him: "man." Or in the book report on the "life cycle of the butterfly" that he chooses "because it's simple."
In the end, Gates outgrows his love for the game. His emotional development in the film hinges on his ability not to attain the "Hoop Dream" but to see through it.
Yet even as the rhetoric of the "Hoop Dream" and the Legend Clyde compete and collide, they also (at times) work hand-in-hand by silencing the longer history of African American struggles. To pursue its contemporary political agenda (a castigation of urban gentrification and sprawl,) the "Hoop Dream" underplays the obstinate legacies of slavery and segregation. The Legend Clyde aids this argument by spinning a nostalgic tale that romanticizes the times in which he lived. Together, they argue against the progressive ethos of the Civil Rights movement to claim that times are worse than ever.
While racial divisions slice through every scene of Frey's Last Shot, a longer sense of racial conflict is shockingly absent. He does not once discuss the larger historical context of African Americans. Instead, Frey's argument centers on the social injustices brought on by later twentieth-century urban sprawl and blight.
Frey chose to focus on Coney Island (not on Harlem or B-Stuy) for a reason. He makes a clear distinction:
"Whenever the housing authority need to relocate poor black families from another New York neighborhood, Coney Island made itself available: a thirty-square-block area devoted to nothing but high rise apartment buildings.
"Blacks did not gravitate to Coney Island naturally, as they did to Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant."
In this way, Frey locates the tragedy of The Last Shot as separate from the upward mobility of the Civil Rights movement (the achievements found in Harlem or B-Stuy.) He focuses not on progress but degradation. On the transformation of Coney Island from the "most welcoming place in America" to the "end of the line." Frey argues,
"The experiment of public housing, which has worked throughout the country to isolate its impoverished predominantly black tenants from the hearts of their cities, may have succeeded here with even greater efficiency because of Coney Island's utter remoteness."
Undergirding this anti-progressive message is the Legend of the Puma Clyde. To see this, let's look at a recent article in Slam about the latest Tinsley shooting. Vincent Thomas invokes the moral logic of the "Hoop Dram." As he writes,
"For many, this Tinsley incident is a story primarily about decision making...But, to me, the decision making is merely a difficult product of a much more fundamental choice. Comm[on], narrating his fictional athlete's ascension-caused dilemma said pointedly: It's hard to turn on the hood that made you."
Thomas' argument centers on the conflicted aftermath of the "Hoop Dream." He criticizes those in the commentariate that hold Tinsley responsible for placing himself in dangerous situations. Thomas writes,
"Black athletes, however, are different than every other sector of rich blacks. Athletes come into their money while they're young and their childhood ties are still fresh. They also have the free time to get into shenanigans.
And how does Thomas end his article? He writes,
"I'm sad that Mike Vick is in jail. I'm glad that Jamal Tinsley escaped the gunshots unharmed. I'm also hoping that athletes are sobering up. when Clyde was hitting Studio 54 in the 70s, his dilemma was which fur to rock. Times have changed."
And this is where the "Hoop Dream" and the Legend Clyde combine. The Legend Clyde provides an imagined, cleaned-up past, a time where the greatest problem "was which fur to rock." IN order to highlight the problems of the present, it represses the problems of the past.
[By contrast, I heard a recent interview with the soul-singing legend Bettye LaVette. Lavette provided quite a different telling of the first decades of the Civil Rights movement. For instance, why did Motown have all the legendary artists? "That was segregation," she said. It was a time when "all black people really did know each other" because they were institutionally segregated from the mainstream white population. She didn't talk about furs or bling before bling was bling. She talked about the murders of two of her former managers. The latter of which was shot by Mary Wells' husband.]
A growing number of popular African American figures have posed a different outlook of on-going race issues in America. Each in their own medium (e.g., Cosby, Kenny and Chuck, Whitlock) provides a challenge to the visions of the "Hoop Dream" and the Legend Clyde. The rhetoric has become heated, to say the least. As Jason Whitlock told the Big Lead,
"Scoop is a clown. And the publishing of his fake ghetto posturing is an insult to black intelligence, and it interferes with intelligent discussion of important racial issues. Scoop showed up on the scene and all of a sudden I’m getting e-mails from readers connecting what I write to Scoop. And his stuff is being presented like grown folks should take it seriously. Please. I guess I’ll go Bill Cosby on you, but it’s about time we as black people quit letting Flavor Flav and the rest of these clowns bojangle for dollars. There’s going to be a new civil-rights movement among black people and the people bojangling for dollars are going to be put in check."
In some ways the Cos Cause is a reiteration of Civil Rights era rhetoric. It harkens back to a language of communal responsibility in the black community, of "lifting as we climb." But it also emphasizes a new vision of individual responsibility. The Cos Cause is founded on the mantra, "It's not what they're doing to us. It's what we're not doing." As Cosby told Oprah and her audience,
"They're buying things for the kid - $500 sneakers. For what? They won't buy or spend $250 on Hooked on Phonics.
"Brown vs. the Board of Education - these people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we've got these knuckleheads walking around who don't want to learn English. I know you all know it, but I just want to get you as angry as you ought to be."
The Cos Cause views the political rhetoric of the "Hoop Dream" as a crutch. The focus is shifted from social injustice to community responsibility.
In Kenny's Smith's blog we can see how this argument plays out in the Tinsley shooting. Kenny the Jet writes,
"Could athletes eliminate much of the threat by better picking the company they keep and choosing where (or where not to) go at night? Is it even fair to ask athletes to stay away from clubs?
"Is it fair to ask them to leave their friends behind? The same people who cared and believed in them before they became successful?
"Unfortunately, yes. Anyone who is successful will tell you firsthand that with success, change has to occur. In my estimation that is why most people aren’t successful. They are afraid of change."
KtJ calls it "change," but what he is really talking about is a demand for maturation. A maturation both in the individual and in the cause for Civil Rights, a "change" away from the rhetoric of the "Hoop Dream" and Darcy Frey, or the Puma Clyde and Scoop Jackson, and to the Cos Cause.
So, what happened to the shoes? It seems for a younger generation the legend of the Puma Clyde no longer resonates. Pumas are not for ballers, but Euros and skateboarders. The New York Times reported in April 2006,
"Ever since the high school phenom O. J. Mayo arrived here Friday with the Miami Tropics Elite team for the Kingwood Classic, a portion of the basketball world has been abuzz with conjecture about his future.
Oh oh, OJ.
"The speculation focused not on the 18-year-old Mayo's deft passing or feathery jump shot, but on the white and blue Nike sneakers that he wore...
"Mayo said that when he joined the Tropics to play in the Kingwood Classic he was not aware that Nike sponsors the team.
'"I really don't worry about the shoe contract," Mayo said. "I'd lay in Pumas if that's what the team wore, but this team wears Nike and I wanted to fit in.'"
In 2006 the Puma Clyde was reborn. Puma released a new generation of Clydes for a new audience: the sneakerfreakers
[A must watch sneakerfreaker vid on the Puma Clyde: click.]
The new Clydes are limited collectors items. Just 216 of the "Bonnie and Clyde" were made.
And only 360 of the "Clydezillas" were manufactured. Solepedia describes them for us: "Each shoe is individually numbered in gold embroidery on the heel. Special 'Made in Japan' shoe-box embossed in gold completed this release."
"In place of the puma cat logo on the tongue these featured a picture of Clyde's Hat. The heel window on the Bonnie's has a .38 Revolver and the Clyde's window features a Tommy Gun. Adorning the insoles is gold script that says, "I Steal For A Living." Finishing off the set is a canvas money bag wit the same $ print as the sock liner." (Solepedia)
Of course, for exoticism's sake, we cannot leave out the "Puma Clyde - Jungle Pack":
And, if it is to be believed, in a recent shoe exhibition in Aukland, New Zealand: "Apparently the Clyde gets the boys emotions stirring; one lad had tears in his eyes looking at the exhibit. These shoes definitely have sole - if only their tongues could talk, there'd be a tale to tell, I'm quite sure."
"PUMA's classic Clyde silhouette has gotten a safari makeover...The shoes were created from a dyed pony hair and the laser etched to achieve a tiger pattern...black, oatmeal, and powder blue - each one highlighted with chocolate brown." (Sneaker Freaker Mag)