Despite being a national holiday celebrating the Declaration of Independence and America’s Walter Payton-like stiff-arm of the British Empire, most people can’t grasp the significance or speak with any intelligence about the Fourth of July and the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain that transpired back in 1776.
But that’s okay, because despite being hazy on the Continental Congress and the importance of what John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Sam Adams and their homeboys did, along with having an understanding that this was once home to millions of Native Americans who were systematically killed and forcibly removed from their lands in one of the worst human atrocities ever, as well as the fact that African-Americans were still slaves in this country during this great day of "Independence" in 1776, we still celebrate the day with a patriotic fervor rife with cookouts, fireworks, music and sports.
It's the perfect day to not only rejoice in the "birth" of our country and enjoy our families, but ourselves as well. It's important that we remind ourselves how unique and fortunate we are, despite life's ups and downs, because after all, "Nobody can be you but you!"
I love the Fourth of July. It became my favorite holiday back in the days because it's also my older brother’s birthday. In 1976, it was a great day of celebration, as I recall, in the backyard of my family’s brownstone home on Macon Street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The aromas of the food on the grill, the great music, the animated discussions and debates, the eclectic gathering of sartorially splendid folks laughing and dancing were all a magnificent assault on my young sensibilities, along with the occasional wino that stopped in and asked for a hot dog and a burger.
But the party really jumped off when some knuckleheads, yelling expletives as they passed by, hurled a brick over the fence and into our outdoor sanctum.
I’m sure they weren’t expecting my Uncle Butch – a 6-foot-3, 260-pound Marine with muscles everywhere and a hearty appetite for violence – to run and jump over the fence like a Blacktino action hero before he commenced to chasing and whoopin’ some ass when he got a hold of some of them a little bit further down on Throop Avenue.
From that day forward, the Fourth of July was always alluring to me. Uncle Butch was a die-hard Yankees fan, and at least a few times every summer, he’d take me out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan, where we’d catch the D, B or 4 trains out to the old stadium at 161st Street in the Bronx to see the best show in New York. He’d always greet me with the same words as he flexed his biceps, even when I was well into my 20’s: “Hey Kid, you wanna swing on my muscle?”
He passed along his love for the pinstripes through osmosis, and even today, I can distinctly recall the thrill of watching Bucky Dent and Willie Randolph turning a double play, of Thurman Munson behind the plate, of Mickey Rivers flying like the wind to steal bases and run down hard-hit fly balls in the centerfield gaps, of Reggie Jackson smashing towering home runs, and of Ron Guidry and Goose Goosage hurling darts from the pitcher’s mound.
Win or lose, we’d stop off to grab some slices of pizza and talk about the game before he'd drop me off back at home.
In addition to baseball, the Fourth was always about great music to me, and I’ve laced this piece with some songs that always remind me of some wonderful times I’ve shared with others during the summer months. In the summer, it always feel like one of those nights you feel like gettin' down.
Whether it was getting my crew together on the block and walking over to Emerson Park and walking through the gates dribbling my basketball and hollering off, "Ayo, who got next?" with Big Malc blasting the beats from his Radio Raheem-like Boom Box, or roller skating with my aunts in Central Park, or jumping into my cousin Disco’s Pathfinder, the one with the panther painted on the hood, with my partners Stinky and Zinky for a spontaneous trip down to Baltimore to get some crabs and some new phone numbers, or lacing up some new kicks to sport at the Jazz concerts and weekly gatherings of the young and beautiful at Grant’s Tomb in the 90s, the Fourth of July and the promise of summer was always about love. That was the message.
Whether walking down the Uptown boulevards during Harlem Week in the late 80s while some spine-tingling Hip Hop and R&B jumped out of the speakers of Audi 5000’s and topless Jeep Wranglers in the midst of NYC’s robust crack economy, checking out the Golden Hoops tournament when Kenny Anderson and the late-great Malik Sealy were playing in the same backcourt for the Riverside Church Hawks when they were in high school, or listening to the radio while working at Martha's Deli, a bodega on Greene Avenue in Brooklyn, laughing uncontrollably while my dude African George was dancing like George Jefferson and screaming, "Ayo Alejandro, pump the volume!", this day always takes me back to sounds and scenes from some fantastic summer days of the past.
In addition to baseball, the day takes me back to some great tennis performances by Serena, Jimmy Connors, Venus, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Maria Sharapova, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Arthur Ashe, Martina Navratilova, Boris Becker, Roger Federer, Chris Evert, Rafael Nadal, John McEnroe at Wimbledon.
And as an ardent boxing fan, I’m also reminded of the great summer fights that still get my juices flowing, like Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns in ’81, Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo in 2005, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray in 1980, as well as the performances of guys like Oscar De La Hoya, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor and Roy Jones, Jr. in the days when the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team, the heartbeat of America's athletic dominance, was large and in charge.
And lastly, I’m always transported back to the great summer basketball tournaments that took place in the New York City parks. I was way too young for the heydays of Dr. J, Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond and Pee Wee Kirkland.
I’ll never forget what I saw Rafer Alston, aka Skip to my Lou, do throughout the summer of 1994 at The Entertainer's Basketball Classic at Rucker Park, when he was strictly known by a small subset of hardcore, playground hoops junkies, before he became an underground hoops legend thanks to the grainy And1 mixtapes and later played for Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State and in the NBA.
So, as we kick off another great summer, let's set the day off by saying, "Go America! It’s your birthday! We're gonna party like it's your birthday!"
But if you don’t have some combination of sports, great food on the backyard grill, dope music and fireworks today, family and love that has come around, or even an uncle that shows up at the annual cookout and still asks you if you wanna swing on his muscle, you’re really missing out on all the fun.