One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Cool – Role Models

 

I – FIT IN

Wilkes was admired for doing all the little things right…  The kind of things that make a player blend in, not stand out.
NBA.com player profile

 

There are plenty of people willing to pay former NBA basketball player Jamaal Wilkes a compliment, but it always comes with a qualifier: best small forward, remarkable supporting player, quietly dominant.

I like the last one for the NBA is not known for wallflowers. Jamaal played on three separate championship teams with players like Bill Walton (UCLA), Rick Barry (Golden State) and Magic Johnson (LA Lakers). Big personalities! And yet, what made Jamaal remarkable was his ability to seamlessly work with them all. He earned the nickname “Silk” at UCLA for how he glided through the action. Amidst the chaos he always knew where to be, whether to break up a pass, grab a rebound or score an uncontested layup.

It was all so unassuming, going about his game as if it was another day at the office, as if the opposing player (Daryl Dawkins) was a co-worker trying his best to keep Jamaal from reaching the water cooler.

 

DARYL: Hey Silk.

JAMAAL: Hey Dawk.

DARYL: How goes it?

JAMAAL: Another day. You?

DARYL: Don’t get me started, and don’t ask about the Haversham project. Haversham, just thinking about it make me… Silk?

JAMAAL: (TWO MORE POINTS ON AN UNCONTESTED LAYUP)

 

“Meryl is the closest we’ve come to finding a motion-controllable person.”
Doug Smythe
Visual Effects Supervisor
Death Becomes Her

I’m not sure this is the best way to compliment an actor, to say that she is as easy to work with as a marionette: Arm here. Tilt head. Raise eyebrow. Now stay…. Stay…

Most see Meryl Streep as the one who sweeps in during the awards’ season with some dramatic role, but I don’t think there is a part she isn’t willing to do. She is at heart a theater rat. Her first gig out of college was acting in five plays in six days for a national playwright conference.

Actually, her first gig was in high school. As an awkward teen who wore glasses, she decided to change her circumstance by dying her hair blond and trying out for the cheer-leading squad.

Her debut was so successful she ended up becoming the homecoming queen.

A social chameleon from the start, Meryl soon turned into a world-class mimic. For her role as Sophie Zawistowski she learned Polish and spoke like a recent immigrant. Film critic Roger Ebert said of the portrayal: “She has the first accent I’ve ever wanted to hug.”

But that was only part of it. Midway through production of Sophie’s Choice the director, Alan Pakula, decided to shoot overseas and…

 

ALAN: Say Meryl, do you know German?

MERYL: Why would I need to know German?

ALAN: We’re now shooting the concentration camp scenes in Croatia and they will be in German.

MERYL: When?

ALAN: Couple of weeks. Get some books on tape. You’ll be great.

 

She was.

 

“Dear Bess were I an Italian or poet I would use luscious language of two countries.  I am neither. I am only a kind of good for nothing American farmer.”
Harry Truman trying to propose

 

As we go to the polls in the early days of November, there aren’t many of us who would choose the presidential candidates if given a real choice, which makes Harry Truman’s rise so incredible.

At age 60 Harry finally settled into a job he actually liked. As US Senator from the great state of Missouri, he was popular among his constituents. His colleagues even called him “Go Along Get Along” Harry.

Harry was popular with so many different people for he was one of them: politically, economically, and geographically. And that’s what party leaders were looking for in a new vice president when Franklin Delano Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term.

By 1944 the Democratic Party was beginning to fray between the northern liberals and the southern conservatives. The country may have been in the middle of WW II, but for some the Civil War never really ended. So, party leaders were looking for a candidate who could straddle both sides of the Mason Dixon line.

They settled on the senator from Missouri, but to Harry it made no sense. It was like asking an airline mechanic to fly a plane. It wasn’t even the first time he was asked to do something where he was utterly unqualified. His own father asked him to leave his job as a Kansas City bank teller and come back home to help run a farm.

At age 20 Harry had exactly zero experience toiling the earth. And yet, when his father asked, he said yes.

Harry was even more than reluctant to accept the role as VP, but FDR was more forceful when he got on a conference call with party leaders and shouted into the phone:  “You tell the senator that if he wants to break up the Democratic Party in the middle of a war, that’s his responsibility.”

Harry finally relented. He didn’t want the job, but sometimes you have to get behind the plow.

 

II – STAND UP

“When Kareem is out, the offense really revolves around Jamaal.   But the way he goes about his business no one really notices.”
Paul Westhead
LA Lakers Head Coach

 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the most prolific scorer in NBA history. Day and night for over 25 years he accumulated a staggering 38, 387 points. No one was better at the post. No one could stop his legendary skyhook. Still, he needed a break and Jamaal was not a bad backup.

Jamaal was no stranger to scoring, but what made him great was his ability to win games. By the time he had joined the Lakers, he had not been on a losing team since 3rd grade. In high school his team recorded 26 consecutive wins. At UCLA he was part of teams that strung a record 88 regular season wins. At Golden State, he not only won Rookie of the Year, he also helped the Bay City team win its first championship.

Talent and confidence helps, but diligence, hard work and showing up every day are what win championships. So when Kareem’s long shadow was felled by a twisted ankle in the 1980 NBA finals, Jamaal was ready to step in. And between him and Magic Johnson, they combined for 79 points and 25 rebounds to beat the Philadelphia 76ers on their home court to win the title while the best player in the world remained in LA icing down a swollen ankle.

 

“She has the stamina of a stevedore.”
Sydney Pollack
Director

 

To say Hollywood was a man’s world when Meryl started her career is an understatement. From the beginning she had to swim in a full tide of machismo. She was called ugly (in Italian) by producer Dino De Laurentis when she auditioned for the remake of King Kong. When she first met Dustin Hoffman, he introduced himself by placing a hand on her breast. In order to land the lead role in Out of Africa, she wore a low-cut dress to woo the director who thought her not romantic (aka sexy) enough.

Meryl knew the landscape and she knew how hard it would be. She may have been the smartest and most talented person on the set, but it would never be enough. If she wanted to be successful, she had to compete with her male counterparts at their own game.

It wasn’t an easy shoot. Out of Africa is a sweeping epic, but not a period piece restricted to Victorian dresses and afternoon tea. It’s a grand spectacle with safaris, big game hunting, wars, exotic diseases and coffee.

Meryl plays Karen Blixen, a Danish Baroness, who travels to Kenya for a marriage of convenience and to run a coffee plantation. But first, her arrival where she is introduced to a very large staff.

Sydney wanted to shoot the scene in one long take. So Meryl – wearing an outfit with enough billowy fabric to make a parachute – waded through the staff to be introduced to someone’s third cousin. One step. One introduction. One step, yet another. Then a few more…

It was only after she reached the porch and Sydney yelled “Cut!” that Meryl started ripping off her clothes. Why? At the beginning of the take a giant beetle scurried up the voluminous fabric and started tap dancing inside of her dress. But not even a super-size creepy crawly was going to stop this stevedore from finishing the scene.

 

“If there was any danger of getting into a fight, I always ran.”
Harry Truman on growing up

 

When it came to swimming in a tide of machismo, Harry forgot his trunks. The streets of Independence, Missouri were a rough and tumble spectacle, so he remained inside. He practiced the piano. He read. He was one of the few boys who went to school.

Harry never gave the appearance of being a rugged outdoors man. So it came as a surprise when he enlisted to help fight the Germans during WW I. It didn’t matter that he was 33, legally blind in one eye and never fired a gun. “It’s a great adventure,” he wrote, “and I’m in it.”

In training camp he did surprisingly well and became an officer, rising to the rank of captain and given command of 194 men with four artillery guns. His first engagement was in the Vogges Mountains near the France-German border. In the middle of a rainstorm his Battery D launched 500 shells towards the enemy.

It was time to move before the Germans could return fire, but there was a problem. The sergeant responsible for the horses to move the guns was nowhere to be found. By the time he arrived the German shells began to fall. One exploded 15 feet from Harry and sent him and his horse into a crater.

Pandemonium ensued. Half the guns were pulled off the path into thick mud. A sergeant lost his nerve and began to flee. Men followed. Everything went to hell until Harry was pulled out from under his horse. From there he started yelling at his men to fall in formation, using every swear word known to an army officer. With steel nerves and a blue tongue, Harry marched his men down the mountain and away from enemy fire.

Not one casualty was sustained.

 

III – STICK OUT

 

“If I had to teach his way [to shoot] I’d die a horrible death.”
Red Auerbach
Boston Celtic’s Head Coach

 

For someone with the nickname “Silk” Jamaal’s shot was anything but. There was a hitch to it as he swung the ball around to the back of his head and launched it like he was a human catapult.

Jamaal developed this unusual shot because he had to.  Growing up he was constantly playing with others who were older and taller. If he brought the ball up from the front like everybody else, it would get swatted away. So, he had to sneak it around the back.

When Jamaal reached high school his coach tried to correct the horrible technique but soon gave up when Jamaal beat him in a game of two-on-two.

At UCLA Coach John Wooden never fully accepted the shot. Here was a coach where details mattered. From passing and rebounding to how a player dressed and shaved, nothing was beyond his purview. He even taught his players the “correct” way to lace their shoes.

For Wooden no detail was insignificant. Everything had to be perfect. And Jamaal launching a basketball like a side of beef was a glaring fault.

One day after practice Coach Wooden had enough and asked Jamaal to stay behind and shoot the ball over and over.

This never happened. When Coach Wooden ended practice, it was always on time and he never kept his players after.

Jamaal wondered what he did wrong as he kept glancing over to his coach who looked transfixed and bewildered like he was trying to come up with an answer even though he did not fully understand the question.

Finally, Coach Wooden relented. From what he could see, Jamaal’s shot left his hands just like everybody else. It just had a roundabout way of getting there.

 

“I don’t think anyone taught Meryl acting. She really taught herself.”
Clinton J. Atkinson
Meryl’s Drama Professor at Vassar

 

For most actors the essence of their craft is to bring a part of themselves to every role. For Meryl it’s the exact opposite. She wants to leave herself at home and completely disappear into a role.

I can’t say I was ever a fan of her work. Then I saw Florence Foster Jenkins.

The movie is based on an actual person, a wealthy socialite and generous benefactor of the arts. She also liked to sing. The problem was she didn’t know how. Even worse, due to a medical condition (syphilis from her husband) she may not have known that she didn’t know how to sing. And so she publicly sang arias from popular operas in front of audiences who were stunned by her audacity to take the stage.

As a child, Meryl did not take acting classes, but she did have opera lessons. She knows how to sing. So why did she take the role to showcase the exact opposite?

I think Meryl does bring a small part of herself into every role – empathy.

Meryl did not focus on Florence’s complete inability to stay in tune, find the rhythm or even remember the words. What she saw in the character was a love of music and a desire to express that love. So she radiated from there.

Still, it had to be maddening, to go against the grain, like asking a Grand Prix driver to race in 2nd gear. The tension must have been unbearable. Or maybe it was liberating. After all, how did Meryl find the right tenor in a performance that is neither mawkish nor condescending? How did she create a character that is somehow lovable even though her singing is like steel claws scraping across an endless chalkboard?

 

“Dear Bess, I’m seeing no outsiders. I don’t give a damn how put out they get. I’m doing as I damn please for the next two years and to hell to all of them.”
Harry Truman after a crushing midterm defeat

 

When Germany surrendered in 1945, Harry had a Gallup Poll presidential approval rating of 87%. Seven years later the rating would drop to 22%.

Think about that. If Harry’s poll numbers were your stock portfolio, you’d be looking for the nearest window. Based on numbers alone, you’d think he was not only ineffective but also incompetent like another president who had big shoes to fill.

Vice President Andrew Johnson was not prepared to step in when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. He was so bad at being president his own party led the charge to have him impeached.

Andrew Johnson’s tale was probably one reason Harry didn’t want the job as VP. He knew that FDR was in poor health and he knew no good would come following a legend. But when FDR passed away two and a half months into his fourth term, Harry couldn’t kick back and run out the clock. He still needed to:

 

  • Win the war with Japan
  • Prevent Soviet expansion into Turkey and Greece
  • Save Europe from starvation (Marshall Plan)
  • Establish NATO for a new Cold War
  • Create the CIA and National Security Council
  • Kick North Korea out of South Korea
  • Fire Joseph McArthur before the general could invade China

 

And while Harry was preventing the world from going up in flames, he was the first president to lay the seeds for future presidents by proposing that congress pass bills for civil rights, a minimum wage, aid for education and universal health care.

Harry may have had the worst approval rating of any modern president when he left office but historians don’t think 22% is befitting for all he accomplished. They actually place him in the top ten when it comes to most effective presidents, only three spots away from the president whose shoes he had to fill.

 

IV – STAY HUMBLE

 

“Thanks first and foremost to my mother, Mrs. Thelma Wilkes.”
Jamaal Wilkes

 

This is how Jamaal started his NBA Hall of Fame speech. He didn’t start off thanking his coaches, his fans or the legendary teammates that stood beside him on the stage.  He first thanked the person who raised him.

Jamaal’s father, Leland, was a pastor and it was important to both parents that their children learn a sense of comportment, to be reasonable, to think of others, to be good people. Based on the above quote, it appears they succeeded.

Jamaal was accepted into the NBA Hall of Fame 26 years after he retired. Most of his teammates and coaches thought the interim too long for a player with such a long list of accomplishments. The problem was Jamaal did not actively campaign for entry. He knew he belonged, but there was something in his upbringing that prevented him from letting everybody know. Others would need to lead the charge.

John Wooden is considered the greatest coach of any sport, whether basketball, football, baseball or badminton. With such a mantle he is constantly asked questions about success. Many have asked him to name the greatest player he ever coached. He always demurred for there were so many.

One reporter took another approach and asked Coach Wooden to describe the perfect player.

Well, that was right up his alley and he went on and on with a laundry list of qualities he looks for in a successful student athlete. And as he went down the list, sparing no detail, something must have clicked for he said off the cuff:

 

“Why not just take Keith (Jamaal) Wilkes and let it go at that.”
Coach John Wooden

 

The greatest trick isn’t that Meryl Streep can slip into any role, but that for over 40 years that’s all we talk about.

I’ve been told that Meryl has been married to same man. I’ve also been told that he has a name.

She also raised four children with this man, now all adults with names as well.

Meryl built a successful career and raised a large family, all the while remaining ever so slightly out of the celebrity spotlight. How? How does one fully dedicate oneself to two separate tracks that are polar opposites: one requiring the planets and stars to align in your presence and the other demanding you sublimate yourself as an individual? Should there be cracks? Would both worlds collide?

Meryl may have wanted to be a successful actor, but she also wanted to have a home life that didn’t reflect the characters she portrayed. And there have been plenty with shoddy parenting skills:

 

  • Left her kids to go work with nuclear material – Silkwood
  • Lost her baby to a dingo attack – Cry in the Dark
  • Left her son in the hands of a megalomaniac – Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Neglected her daughter and son to rule Great Britain – The Iron Lady

 

How did she do it? Don’t expect her to tell. There is no lifestyle blog or autobiography. So if you really want to know how a mother of four was able to gather a record 21 Academy Award nominations without spilling into one salacious headline, a quote from a French author may help:

 

“Be regular and orderly in your life like the bourgeois
so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
Gustave Flaubert

 

When Harry headed back to Independence, Missouri after serving two terms as president, his bank account was as low as his approval numbers. He had no savings. At the time there was no government pension for his service. His only stipend came from the military and the monthly check wasn’t nearly enough. He would be forced to sell the family farm just to scrape by.

It didn’t have to be that way. After all, he got his start in politics because a Kansas City crime boss thought Harry’s war credentials made him a good candidate. The opportunity to line his pockets was always there: graft, bribes, kickbacks, back scratching, outright theft, and yet, Harry rejected it all. Instead he went the opposite direction. As a county judge, he made sure Jackson County had the best roads in the state. As a U.S. senator he saved the country billions of dollars by keeping defense contractors’ feet to the fire. As President he didn’t steal one White House bathrobe. And when he left, he didn’t cash in on the presidency by moving to New York City to give speeches and serve on boards. Instead he went home.

Harry did like being president. One of the perks he enjoyed the most was spending the winter months in a small house at a naval air base just outside of Key West, Florida.

One day a staff member saw Harry at his desk applying stamps to a couple of envelopes. The person told the president that the staff could handle the postage.

“This is personal correspondence,” Harry replied, applying the stamps secured from his own funds.

So, the next time you are at the polling station trying to find someone to pick, think of Harry Truman and remember how a political career born from mob corruption was still able to give his best to a country who at the time thought he was doing a pretty lousy job.

 

Citizen Harry

 

 

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