|New school meets old cool in Nike ads|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
Just after the NBA All-Star break, and just before Michael Jordan's knee went cartilage on him, Nike introduced the new Air Jordan XVIIs. (Forget how old MJ is ... consider the concept of 17 versions of the shoe you absolutely had to have in 1985, and then think about this: How old are you feeling right now?)
In one, the lights come up on Ray Allen standing with a ball in the middle of a dark court, dressed in a white sleeveless, white shorts and shoes. A small crowd claps its approval as a jazz and hip-hop blend from Gang Starr kicks in. Ray takes to the dribble and shoots and scores over and around three defenders, again and again, easy as you please. There are shots of the crowd bobbing and weaving, then Ray hits a long 3, slides back along the arc, pointing his finger like a gun, feeling the swagger in the music.
It's all shot in dramatic black and white, like jazz photographs, and the court feels like a club. At the end, a close-up on Ray's "that's-right-I'm-bad" smile morphs into a blue-lit still shot of his head on an album cover: "Ray Allen, All Rhythm, No Blues," it says.
The covers copy the layouts, color schemes and lettering of album art from Blue Note records, the jazz label that was the essence of cool in the 1950s and '60s. Along with the screw-you attitude of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, and the yearning of John Coltrane, it was Blue Note covers that made jazz feel crucial and hip in those days, and for decades after.
Check out Hank Mobley's "No Room For Squares," Coltrane's "Blue Train" or Lee Morgan's "Search For The New Land" -- tell me you don't want to be that smooth, that bad, that smart.
Beyond selling shoes, what interests me is the idea that the covers, and the whole jazz feel of the ads, make Ray, Darius and Q part of a tradition; they anchor their new-school brilliance in old-school style.
People often talk about young NBA stars who have no respect for history, but these spots seem to give young lions the benefit of the doubt. They suggest their game and their style are an extension, not a rejection, of what's come before.
That's the bridge between basketball and jazz, a bridge that reaches back at least as far as Kareem and Dr. J -- musicians and players are always trying to master what has been handed down to them, even as they rework it and make it their own. That's the essence of improvisation, and improvisation is at the heart of both games.
The Nike ads put young faces on old covers and ask us to see the resemblance at the same time that we recognize the new thing. And they ask us to think of present-day players not as brash punks, but as artists who, like their predecessors, get a kick out of being creative and entertaining, sometimes tough and fierce, and always cool.
Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his regular "Critical Mass" column for Page 2. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.