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Basketball and Jazz: Playing the changes

Jazz and basketball have been compared many times because they share many similarities. From fast-breaks to original takes, these American inventions capture the imagination and ignite passion for life and art. But the heart of the kinship between them is something rarely discussed, or understood, about either: improvisation.

There can be no doubt that jazz has made me a better person than I would have been without it. The music inspires my passion to participate fully and richly in life.

...but jazz has also made me a better basketball player.

-Kareem Abdul-Jabar

One summer when I was a kid, circa 1989,  I went to a day-camp at the YMCA. I arrived one morning to find everyone gathered around this one kid who had a brand new pair of Air Jordans. Man, he was the coolest kid in the whole camp. I was six, maybe seven, and I still remember the impact this little kid's shoes had on everyone else. Basketball must be really cool, I thought. We spent the rest of that summer dribbling and shooting and passing throwing basketballs around the court. Even at a young age, my personality was already squarely in the "going against the grain" category, so I dismissed Jordan, and promptly chose everyone's favorite role-model, Charles Barkley, as my b-ball hero.

Another early childhood memory I have is riding in the car with my father on September 28, 1991. The lady on NPR was talking about Miles Davis, who had just died. I asked my pops if Miles was the best trumpet player in the world, and he replied with something that took me maybe 15 years to fully comprhend. I'm a competitive person, and I generally prefer absolutes in life, but my wise old-man said something like, "Music is not a competition. At the highest levels it is all subjective. Jazz is about expressing the human condition, it is not about being 'better' than someone." I'm sure he said it in a way a kid could understand, but that thought has lived inside me ever since.

These two distinct events have come to define who I am today .

The Head

Two of the biggest passions in my life are music and basketball, specifically jazz and the Spurs.  At first glance they may seem a strange pair. Basketball has set plays, just as most jazz has a set of chord changes. In basketball we see a team run a play, but within that play we see the players react to the activity on the court and improvise within it. Similarly, jazz, the kind of jazz I'm talking about -- hard bop and 'modern', not that smooth junk that Kenny G has made a fortune selling -- has it's own plays.

On a typical hard bop tune the band will play a written melody over set chord changes (in the jazz vernacular this written melody is called, the head). After the head, the band generally gives each player in the group an opportunity to solo/improvise over the chord changes. During this improvisation (and for me, this improvisation pretty much defines the heart of jazz) the band plays off each other - reacting to what the other members of the band are playing within the chord changes. There is structure, but at it's greatest it is just a loose structure. If the band has it's ears and hearts open, fully tuned-in to each other, then one-of-a-kind moments of beauty happen. The expression of being human -- from the dizzying highs, through the creamy middles, to the terrifying lows -- flows freely from the artists, through their instruments, into music.

Basketball shares this improvisation-within-structure, or playing the changes, with jazz. The game is full of set motion, but when the initial play is unsuccessful we see players react to this new reality in practiced, but spontaneous ways. This result is born out of something a team has rehearsed many times, but in the flow of a game something within the play may change. A defender may make a well-timed or unexpected rotation, the ball-handler may lose control, or an offensive player may exploit an open lane with a well-timed cut. This changes the landscape of the court, and forces players to find creative solutions within it. Some of the most exciting plays in basketball occur when this happens. For instance, in the game against the Hawks, this happened.


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The most classic jazz combo is a quintet, which parallels a basketball team's five players on the court. As much as we hear about the hypothetical "who would win one-on-one: Jordan or LeBron?" the question itself is immaterial. Basketball is not a one-on-one game. I find that kind of what if question goes against the understanding that basketball is a team sport. In an extension of this, the individual awards the media hands out are meaningless, especially given the fact that there are no parameters set for any of them.

Just like basketball isn't an individual sport, good jazz isn't made by one great player and a bunch of guys pulled together to complete the combo. Just because you have a great player doesn't mean that the group is going to perform something that anyone wants to hear. A group like that is almost guaranteed to be incapable of producing music that will move an audience. In basketball, having a good player, say Carmelo Anthony, doesn't mean that the team is going to have success on the court.

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Watching the Spurs on a nightly basis gives us a view into what makes them work as a team. We don't just see them play a couple of times a year, but we get to witness every pick and roll that Tim and Tony run together. We've seen some iteration of that thousands of times, but each time we get to see the same base play run and finish in a slightly different way. Whether it's a simple lay-up off the glass or a kick out to an open shooter, each time we see a play run, it exists in it's own unique way. It's what keeps me coming back for every regular season contest.

If you had caught Miles Davis' quintet in the mid-sixties on a week-long stand you would have heard the same tunes every night, but never in the same way. To the discerning ear, even a tune that sounded the same on the surface would provide a different narrative, and a fresh view, the next night.

I think the regular season would be more enjoyable, and much more competitive, with fewer games. We can change that later. I don't want to miss out on any of the hum-drum, day-to-day plays that we enjoy on a nightly basis from our two legends that will be gone before we are ready to say goodbye. While some have found a way to be bored by Tim and Manu, I'll miss their one-of-a-kind play. From the banker, to the drive through the lane filled with euro-steps and behind the back moves. The subtle, and the not-so-subtle, pump-fakes that each has made a staple of their games.

Manu has the fire, the drive to explore a defense, and the technique to find his way out a jam. Duncan, in his quiet glory, always laid down the foundation, never missing a thing -- always an anchor for the lost. Knocking down a 14-footer to remind you he was still carrying the fire.

In part two, I will look at Tim Duncan, Paul Chambers, and James Jamerson. Dig that.