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Sounds of the City

From Ron Artest to Rony Seikaly, examining the Big East's musical legacy

A few nights ago, I stood stirring in the kitchen, pondering what eating oatmeal for dinner meant about my life, and the familiar sound of squeaking sneakers on hardwood melted away my existential fears like brown sugar atop a bowl of steel-cut oats. It didn’t matter the Red Storm were playing against a team of dwarves. Finally, basketball!

But while reassuring to the soul, these early games have been insignificant. The most we can gather from this week’s lopsided exhibition showcases is that the Big East plays a higher caliber of basketball than the D-2A Southern Pentecostal Dentistry Conference. Sadly, this means the impending 2,500-word screed comparing the performances, potential, and amazing names of God’s Gift Achiuwa and Fab Melo will have to wait. We won’t go all Smoking Gun with shoulder X-rays of Wayne Blackshear, Louisville’s exciting but injured freshman. And items like Jeremy Lamb’s preseason All-America honor and West Virginia’s attempted desertion to the Big 12 are best serviced by digital blurbs that scroll beneath Colin Cowherd’s smiling face. But fear not: In the spirit of exhibition basketball, we’re going to lunge through this early November window of meaninglessness and worry about the shards of glass later.

A rapper named J Cole recently released his first album, titled Cole World: The Sideline Story. It has sold well, but hasn’t created much of a stir outside his existing circle of loyalists. This was expected — he’s deft with wordplay but unequipped with the blinding glow of charisma. A few years ago, Cole tried out for the St. John’s University basketball team. He failed to make the squad as a walk-on, but this nugget of information made the creaky hamster wheel in my brain start rotating slowly. If we were to examine music made by actual Big East players, would it reflect the conference’s rugged, brass-knuckle style? Assuming asphyxiating defense, grudge matches, and bruising fouls could be synthesized into a musical aesthetic, could there be a “Big East Sound” that has guided generations of athletes who dabble in musicianship? It’s a premise with the intellectual flimsiness of a damp University of Kentucky diploma, but I decided to give it a shot.

Luther Wright — “A 1st Round Draft Pick for Christ” (Seton Hall)
When it comes to supplying NBA talent, Seton Hall has a tragic history. In 1989, Ramon Ramos suffered terrible brain trauma after being involved in a car accident. Eddie Griffin, a lottery pick who struggled with disciplinary and alcohol issues, was killed in 2007 when he smashed his SUV into a moving train while intoxicated. And, until recently, Luther Wright, a house-sized center who showed flashes of dominance for the Pirates in the early ’90s, looked headed for another sad epilogue.

After being drafted with the 18th pick by the Utah Jazz in 1993, Wright quickly slipped down the wormhole of substance abuse and mental illness. A year later, police discovered him hitting car windows and beating garbage cans at a rest stop. Even before Twitter’s echo chamber of mockery existed, it was the kind of bizarre incident we regarded as a funny outburst of eccentricity instead of an indicator of a dangerously troubled mind. But it wasn’t long before Wright was out of the NBA, hooked on drugs, and living on the streets as a hulking embodiment of free-fall failure. On a winter night in 2004, he stumbled into the emergency room of a Newark hospital, where surgeons lopped off two of his frostbitten toes to save his foot.

After finding religion, mental stability, and less amputative hobbies, Wright began crooning in the name of the Lord. In 2010, he and fellow Seton Hall Pirate Anthony Avent jointed the NBA Legends Band, a group that includes Terry Cummings, Thurl Bailey, and a number of other professional ballplayers. They’ve since performed at the NBA All-Star Game and asked to be recognized by the Guinness World Records book as the world’s tallest band (no, that’s not a joke).

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Strong. The Big East can be a godless state of nature where the nasty and brutish flourish by Hobbesian dictum, but basketball remains our religion. Redemption is always possible. Just imagine the joy you’ll feel when President Devendorf is sworn into office in 2028.

Allen Iverson — “40 Bars” (Georgetown)
Allen Iverson’s rap career was a stillborn endeavor that began and ended with one minimalist, hook-free track. To paraphrase: He released “40 Bars,” drew criticism for violent and homophobic lyrics, then scrapped the entire conceit. Grand opening, grand closing. Over the years, Iverson had a number of such “teachable moments.” They usually ended with him expressing contrition for being shaped by grim experiences into someone distasteful to certain segments of the public, but what always resonated with me was his immutability.

Back when Iverson was in training camp for the Memphis Grizzlies, I flew down to Birmingham, Ala., to interview him for a magazine profile. After the first day of practice, he had his manager, Gary Moore, swing by a hood Chinese spot to scoop up Styrofoam cartons of fried chicken wings. While driving back to the hotel, Moore turned to me and said, in reference to Iverson’s goal of cracking the starting lineup, “He better not be playing behind these sorry motherfuckers.” Hey, at least things worked out for Mike Conley. But in an era when Steve Nash’s personal chef creates monthly diets out of nothing but kale, farro, and pine resin, Iverson still feasts on junk from places where junkies knock on car windows in the parking lot.

Over the past few years, Iverson’s legacy has been lanced by the pen-strokes of journalists who patiently waited for his wiry frame to lose elasticity before exacting revenge for offending their puritanical sensibilities, but all it takes is watching clips from his two seasons at Georgetown to remember his ferocious greatness. The anger, egotism, and mulishness that made his NBA career end so unceremoniously were a beautiful thing back then.

There are other Big East nuggets from that trip to Birmingham. After 10 minutes of watching UConn product Hasheem Thabeet futilely wandering through basic offensive sets and bobbling passes, it was obvious Memphis had made a grievous error selecting him third overall. On the other hand, fellow Husky Rudy Gay — super-tall, athletic, and equipped with a terrycloth (that means very soft) jumper — was totally unstoppable during practice. You give him that cap-disemboweling contract because you can’t stand to see such fragile beauty dangling from the arm of another franchise.

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Strong. It’s an ugly, mean-spirited, raw record. Jerome “Junkyard Dog” Williams would gnaw on cinder-block chips while nodding his bald head to it.

Rony Seikaly — “Let You Go” (Syracuse)
As the NBA players’ association knows, it’s tough to engender sympathy for the plight of professional athletes when the public believes they live Utopian lives. Youth, health, notoriety, millions in the bank, luxury cars, acrobatic sex with attractive women — it all sounds so good, right? But then there’s Rony Seikaly, who makes the existence enjoyed by the average athlete seem like a life spent scraping rat carcasses off garbage barges while floating down the Yangtze River.

During his playing career, the Beirut-born big man was an All-America center at Syracuse and a solid pro in Miami (he averaged 17 points, 12 boards, and three moments of swarthiness per game in 1992-93). Those are exciting things, but since retiring in 1999, Seikaly has also become a world-famous dance music D.J. and producer who jets between foam parties in Ibiza and raves in Miami. He was married to Elsa Benitez, a two-time Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover girl. And mathematically, there’s a 78 percent chance that he’s sipping a jeroboam of Veuve Clicquot on a yacht whenever you read this. Print this article out and unfold it on the Peter Pan bus five hours from now — Rony will still be on a boat swigging from an oversize bottle of bubbly. We should just remake all those passé Chuck Norris jokes by subbing in “Rony Seikaly” and “riding dolphins off the coast of Crete.”

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Minimal. This is engineered for a frothing, orgiastic dance-fest in which half the crowd is on MDMA and the rest are shaggy-haired Barcelonans who are also on MDMA. It’s not the techno that appeals to the muscular hordes of Jersey (Rutgers, Seton Hall) or Long Island (sort of St. John’s). Besides, Rony is based in Florida, and teams from that state have always spun quickly out of the Big East. Miami, even in its seasons with Tim James and John Salmons, never truly seemed part of the collective.

And these days, no one is sure if South Florida is actually in the conference or is just a fictional place.

Dana Barros — “Check It Out” (Boston College)
Basketball has had a fistful of physical anomalies who are impossible to imitate because of freakish combinations of size, strength, coordination, and fast-twitch muscles. Most of these mooncalves can be identified by singular names: Wilt, Magic, Shaq, Dirk, LeBron. Less rare, but even more frightening, are the pint-size scorers. These players aren’t blessed with cartoonish physiques that make their dominance the act of a deity backhanding feeble souls across the mortal coil — they excel despite being constrained by all-too-human dimensions. These small fries have cinematic representations, such as a Jedi hocking spitwads at the Death Star or Joe Pesci stabbing a larger man to death with a pen in Casino.

Dana Barros, one of those pugnacious critters, had a 13-year NBA career as a 3-point sniper, even making the All-Star team in 1995 during his tenure on worthless post-Barkley Philadelphia teams. But at Boston College, he was a tiny destroyer of worlds: Barros led the conference in scoring twice and was the university’s first player to drop 2,000 points.

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Strong. On the 1994 compilation Basketball’s Best Kept Secret, Barros was easily the most competent of the NBA players tricked into trying on embarrassing rap hats. While that’s akin to being the “winningest coach in Los Angeles Clippers history,” he wasn’t bad: He rode the beat confidently, did a couple of nice onomatopoeic outbursts, and rhymed “Onyx,” “Chronic,” and “Hooked on Phonics” like every other mediocre ’90s rapper. The most shameful performance on the LP goes to Chris Mills (sample lyric: “Flippin’ the script on this funky phat track / Brothers can’t front, so you better step back”), who rapped with the faltering uncertainty of someone reading haikus written by a dyslexic ESOL student. But yes, “Check It Out” is the ’90s Big East aesthetic distilled. Bubble vests, ambiguous scenes of metalworking, and a piano loop from Jazzy Jeff. Boom!

Ed Nelson — “Pickup Truck” (UConn)
Of all the unfortunate hip-hop subsets — Horrorcore, Frat Rap, Hip-House — the lamest might be Country Rap. This isn’t a sweeping insult to Southern Hip-Hop, but an indictment of the micro-genre in which drooling “Aw, shucks” folksiness is regarded as endearing instead of mawkish. Let’s save the woodchuck-hunting metaphors for presidential campaigns, fellas. From a historical perspective, Rappin’ Duke did John Wayne impersonations on wax in 1984, but the father figure of slack-jaw modernism is Bubba Sparxxx. A respectable artist, Sparxxx was groundbreaking because of his fatness, whiteness, and a debut video that featured hillbillies mudwrestling in a pigpen. Later came Cowboy Troy, a hick from Texas who wears 10-gallon hats and appeared on Vanilla Ice’s last LP.

Sown into this hayseed lineage comes Ed Nelson, a goon from UConn best known for post-collegiate attempts at playing in the NFL (he was released by the Rams in 2006 after struggling to “assimilate football terminology”). Maybe too much of his mental real estate was devoted to rapping — that same year, he put out “Pickup Truck,” a track on which he boasted about being the “first damn person to knock out a queer” and possessing the athleticism to “jump higher than a bunny.” Listening to Nelson rap is like watching a Kodiak bear try to play Words With Friends, but less interesting.

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: None. This is some SEC bullshit.

Will Sheridan — “Welcome to the Jungle” (Villanova)
Earlier this year, Will Sheridan announced he was gay. No one cared, which was a testament to the former Villanova guard’s obscurity — and, maybe, to a growing progressive spirit within basketball. I’m not going to waste time expounding on any points about equality or tolerance or basketball’s meritocratic spirit that are already obvious to everyone working with more brain cells than Ed Nelson. Anyway, a month before his revelation, Sheridan put out this video with a bunch of shirtless men dancing. Prophetic!

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Moderate. The Big East will always be associated with Northeastern urban life. Hometown athletes hail from cities with skylines, rattling subways, and playground legends who pick at needle scabs while recounting past glory. Midwestern additions like DePaul (Chicago) and Marquette (Milwaukee) are in metropolitan areas, too, even if bootcut jeans are considered fashionable there. Sheridan’s “Welcome to the Jungle” won’t cause Axl Rose to lose any sleep over titular legacy, but the soaring views of Manhattan, jostling yellow cabs, and shots of grimy bodegas make it work for our purposes.

Metta World Peace — “Afghan Woman” (St. John’s)
There’s not much to write about the performance artist formerly known as Ron Artest that hasn’t been written many times before. The St. John’s product has spent his entire career walking the tightrope between valuable and cancerous. For all the compelling chaos Ron-Ron has been immersed in, it’s still too bad the Knicks drafted Frederic Weis instead. Playing in his hometown, Artest would either have been the most beloved Knickerbocker of his generation or Colin Ferguson. Musically, he’s less contradictory. Despite his well-documented personal problems, he draws from the sunnier side of his psyche in the recording booth. His discography includes songs about working hard, being a champion, and the plight of abused Afghan women.

Contribution to Big East Musical Legacy: Moderate to Strong. World Peace, like rappers Nas, Tragedy Khadafi, and Mobb Deep, is a proud representative of the Queensbridge housing projects, but many of his songs have the gloss of Hollywood. Still, he’s so Big East to the marrow that even a layer of schlock can’t conceal it.

Malik Sealy — “Lost in the Sauce” (St. John’s)
As if Sealy’s death in a 2000 car accident wasn’t depressing enough, the lyrics on his song “Lost in the Sauce” are about appreciating parental guidance, avoiding trouble during his Bronx childhood, and the importance of supporting loved ones. Then add in the fact that the driver of the vehicle that struck Sealy was intoxicated (and was arrested for drunk driving on two occasions after the crash). Like his close friend Kevin Garnett said on the day of Sealy’s funeral service: “This is real life. Real life.” From a professional standpoint, Malik was one of those Big East standouts — like Lawrence Moten or Terry Dehere — who never had equivalent success on the next level. But for those of us who saw them in their collegiate prime, they were feared and respected.

Contribution to Big East Legacy: Strong. RIP, Big Malik.

Ben Detrick has contributed to the New York Times, Village Voice, and Northeastern Dogfighting Quarterly. He lives in New York City and will spend this fall weaning himself off boat shoes. Follow him on Twitter at @bdetrick.

Previously from Ben Detrick:
Why Syracuse Will Win the National Championship

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