Tyshawn Taylor’s messy thrilling beautiful masterpiece

I remember the first time I met Tyshawn Taylor, which is unusual. I don’t remember meeting anybody else on that team. It was 2008, and he had just arrived on Kansas’ campus for summer school. He was wearing a white v-neck shirt. That look would become pretty popular over the next year or so, but Tyshawn was the first person I saw in it. He looked cool. I wrote earlier this week that sports are not cool, even though there are cool people in them. Tyshawn is one of those people. Tyshawn is cool. He just is. He has style and charisma. He’s his own man.

I don’t know exactly why I bring that up, but for whatever reason that has always seemed significant to me. I don’t know much about Tyshawn’s aptitude outside of basketball, but I have always assumed he is the kind of person who would thrive in a creative field. He has always seemed so sharply aware of the world and his place within it. He sometimes seems tormented by perception. His own and that of others. Tyshawn has always worn his emotions on the outside. He is a beautiful basketball player to watch, in part because he plays brilliantly, but also because watching him play basketball makes it feel like you know him. No other game is as intimate. In basketball arenas, the fans are right there. Close enough to read the tattoos. The players don’t wear helmets or hats. And basketball is not played behind the wall of structure and design the way football is. Basketball is naked and free. It is played at 5,000 RPM with no seatbelt, and Tyshawn Taylor plays it so honestly. His face always lets you in. His shoulders tell a story. Most players aren’t like that. Most players play covered in the pretenses of Intensity, Unflappability and Invulnerability. Tough guys. Tyshawn isn’t like that. Tyshawn always seems a little vulnerable, and a lot human. The beauty is in that honesty. It can sometimes feel like you’re watching an artist.

When Kansas played at Kansas State recently, and Tyshawn was messing up at the end of the game, and his shoulders started talking and his face started beaming out his insides and he missed the free throws and turned it over, I wrote on Twitter that it looked like Tyshawn was about to paint a masterpiece and cut off his ear. When I say watching Tyshawn play is like watching an artist, I don’t mean he is such a great player he transcends sports, I mean he makes it feel like you’re watching someone express themselves in the most imperfect, crazy, honest way they’re capable of doing it.

You can say many things about Tyshawn, and everybody seems to have something  to say about him. But whatever you say, say this too: Tyshawn Taylor is unforgettable.

If that wasn’t true before, I don’t think anybody at Kansas will ever forget about him now. I do believe Tyshawn became a Kansas legend on Saturday, when he played 44 minutes at an intensity and under a pressure most people will never know. He made one turnover. He scored 24 points. He scored nine points in overtime. Twice, he answered a huge Missouri play with one of his own, and when it came time to decide the game, it was Taylor on the foul line, with that face and those shoulders. He made them both, and Kansas won.

Jason King of ESPN.com got a great anecdote about that moment. Tyshawn’s mom, Jeannell, covered her eyes when her boy stepped to the line. She peaked through her fingers to see her son come through in the clutch, to see her son become a hero. “I broke down and cried,” she told Jason. “That’s my baby.”

Jeannell is such a big part of Tyshawn’s story. That sounds stupid, because considering she is the one who gave him birth, she is pretty much the biggest part of Tyshawn’s story. But there is more to it. It is difficult to explain without getting into vagueness and conjecture, and I don’t think it’s responsible to do that, but it is fair and accurate to say Tyshawn carries a heavy burden in his family, a greater one, even, than most kids from tough backgrounds. A greater one than someone his age should have to. I don’t know much, and I don’t mean to imply I do, but I know enough to know some of the valleys in the rolling hills of his career have not been his fault.

And yet there he was. Here he is. He has been on a peak for two months, mostly. He might be the Big 12 player of the year. He might end up on the All-America team, and if he does for the rest of time you’ll look up into the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse and see it: Taylor 10. Right up there with Chamberlain, Manning and Pierce. Can you imagine that?

What is the point of all this? I don’t know, really. That’s the good thing about having a blog. I don’t need a nut graph. I just found myself thinking about him last night and today, this incandescent kid from New Jersey who loves clothes and Jay-Z quotes and is at his best when he is right up on the rails, skating on the razor blade that separates control and chaos, the kid who can make basketball feel like something ethereal.

And I think we might have seen his masterpiece.

Rapping about sports will always fail

I hesitate to write this, because any attempt by a single person to define what is and isn’t cool is an open invitation to The Internet to destroy that person. It’s like putting an overcooked pork chop in front of a Chopped judge.

Alas, I am willing to become a martyr for this cause.

First, you need to familiarize yourself with the following videos:

I’m not going to spend much time on the exceptionally poor quality of the rapping in either of those videos or the excessive whiteness or that one of the guys in the Mizzou video is named “Tanner,” which — and this is true — was the stock name me and my buddies assigned to anyone who was popping the collar on his polo shirts in 2004, or that the guy in the KU video is ripping off a 50 Cent song that is eight years old and was never cool in the first place, or that the whole “I’m rich and drive fancy cars” thing is not as cool when it’s really your dad who is rich and his cars you’re driving or that the Missouri video has as much to do with Kansas as it does Missouri or that somebody is wearing a Santa Claus hat in the KU video.

I’m going to ignore that stuff, because it’s just dressing on the biggest point in all this. You ready? Here goes.

Sports are not cool.

Sports are fun. Sports are dramatic. Sports are intense. Sports are worthwhile. But sports are not cool.

Coolness is about individuality. It is about rebellion. It is about style. It is the guitar solo in “Johnny B. Goode.” It was Jay-Z’s Yankees fitted, it is the fins on a ’59 Cadillac and it is Farnsworth Bentley’s umbrella. It was the way Outkast sounded in 2000. It is Martin Luther King’s cadence, Bill Clinton playing the saxophone and the twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye when he knew he was saying something just right. It is Steve Jobs getting fired from Apple.  It is Barack Obama turning his back to the camera and walking off at the end of the “Bin Laden is dead” announcement. It is the Fab Five wearing their shorts long in 1992 and Dennis Rodman wearing them short in 1996.

Awesome.

Also awesome.

Cool is cool, and certainly there are cool people who ended up in sports. But the overall idiom of sports is inherently uncool. It is all about conformity and shared identity. It is about being part of something larger than yourself, which is the opposite of being yourself. This is not a bad thing. It can be a really good thing. The military, for example, could not operate effectively without this kind of culture, and neither could a sports team. Lots of good things come from conformity, but coolness is not among them.

More to the point, sports fandom is every bit as uncool as Star Trek fandom.* It’s all geeking out about people you don’t know and will never meet. It’s arguing about numbers. It’s coming up with justifications for caring about the outcomes of games. It’s having heroes.

It is not bad, but it is not cool.

*Oh, let’s not split hairs here. I’m exaggerating to make a point. 

This is why any attempt to rap about sports will inevitably fail. Jay-Z could not write a cool rap song about Kansas basketball. It isn’t possible, because Jay-Z might be cool, and Kansas basketball might have some cool things about it or some cool guys on the team, but sports are not cool. The two don’t mix. Sports are institutions, and nothing in sports is more institutional than college athletics. It practically defines the term.

Rapping about a team you like is the same as rapping about a rapper you like. It’s too meta.

Romance and sexiness work the same way. Once the mystery is gone — once you have made it clear you are actively trying to create sexiness — it becomes corny and lame. These things can only exist behind a veil.

Also, you know who is terrible at rapping? Practically everybody on earth, regardless of race. Let’s leave it to the professionals. Most of them are cool, which is why most of them wouldn’t rap about a college sports team. 

A Kansas kindergarten hero

You have probably heard by now the story of a little girl in Kansas who refused to do her kindergarten homework because that homework involved drawing a picture of the mascot of a team her parents don’t like. 

She has become a hero to many fans of the state’s other team, which her parents do like. She has become a big story. She is the dominant story in Kansas education right now. 

And you know what I say? Rightfully so. 

Like so many of you, I feel it is deeply troubling that in an educational setting a kid might be exposed to ideas not originating from within his or her own household. The key problem with discourse in this society is that there are not enough people who believe what they believe and only interact with others who share their specific beliefs and reaffirm their correctness.
 
Further, it should be re-enforced at every opportunity that sports team affiliation is the most important part of any human’s identity and that those who affiliate with sports teams you don’t like should be thought of as bad people who are (probably) prone to deviant sexual behaviors. 
 
And the sooner we can get kids thinking this way, the better. An open mind is one waiting to be ransacked by sexual deviants who wear the wrong colors.