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Original Issue

Music of The Sphere

BASKETBALL IS jazz, a collaborative and improvisational American art form exported to the world and returned to us as Kristaps Porzingis, the Latvian rookie sensation for the Knicks whose name—if you sing it right—sounds like "April in Paris," the staple of Count Basie and Duke Ellington that goes: "Kristaps Porzingis, chestnuts in blossom...."

In America our Counts and Dukes come from basketball or jazz, not Downton Abbey. Mel Counts played center for the New Orleans Jazz and just missed posting up Pistons center Walter Dukes. We look to basketball or "The Lady Is a Tramp" for our Barons and Earls, including former center Earl Barron. It's a short trip on a straight line from jazz to basketball—from Pearl Bailey to Thurl Bailey, from Fats Waller to Foots Walker, from Nat (King) Cole to Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton. Take the A Train—the Ellington classic or Artis Gilmore. They'll both bring you to the same place.

Meadowlark Lemon could be jazzman or baller. Wayman Tisdale was both. "Basketball" wasn't Thelonious Monk's middle name, but close enough. (It was "Sphere.") Which métier you prefer—Oscar Peterson's or Oscar Robertson's—rests largely on how you answer these questions: Was Charlie Parker or Larry Legend the supreme Bird of the 20th century? Has Steph Curry or George Gershwin provided the greater Rhapsody in Blue? Which was the more profound version of Giant Steps—Coltrane's album, or Kareem's memoir of the same name?

The glorious names in basketball and jazz confirm their status as preeminent modes of self-expression. How else to explain that Bo Ellis and Boo Ellis were both drawn to the NBA, as were Campy Russell and Cazzie Russell, and Rolando Blackman and Renaldo Balkman? Devin Durrant was no Kevin Durant, but who is? Goran and Zoran Dragić are brothers, but Marcus Cousin and DeMarcus Cousins are not even cousins. God Shammgod was not the father of Fred Christ. But they all arrived at the same profession. And don't get us started on the various Markos and Darkos and Zarkos.

Basketball names can be many things—a two-word shopping list (O.J.Mayo) or a two-word description of George Harrison (Fab Melo). Cornelius Cash could have been a 19th-century railroad baron, Brook Steppe two geological formations. Thabo Sefolosha belongs in the Bible, the First Letter of (Chris) Paul to the Sefoloshans.

And while Bulls guard E'Twaun Moore didn't inherit the sundry endorsements of his predecessor, Michael Jordan, he deserves a national snack commercial nonetheless: "Lay's potato chips—you always want to E'Twaun Moore."

Basketball and jazz share percussive qualities, and a common vernacular of keys, sets, bass lines and baselines. Pro basketball has its roots in ballrooms: the Harlem Rens played in the Renaissance Ballroom, the Philadelphia Sphas in the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel. The reverse is true too: think of all the high school dances on gym floors, streamers strung from basketball hoops.

Jazz isn't basketball's only musical analogue. The game has inspired countless band names in various genres, among them Mookie Blaylock (which became Pearl Jam), Luscious Jackson and Tenacious D. Leonard Skinner was the basketball coach at Stillwell Junior High as well as the gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High in Jacksonville before gaining greater fame as the namesake of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

I know, it's only pick 'n' rolls (but I like it). And who wouldn't. The music or the names or the game itself transports us to some interstellar space. It's probably a combination of all these things—a little bit of music, a lot of physical brilliance and a cool name. It's one part Mingus, two parts Porzingis.

The result, in basketball or jazz, is lights going up on a polished stage, and the site of artists going to work: the muted trumpet that is Wah Wah Jones, the drum kick pedal that goes Boumtje-Boumtje, and over there, seated in a corner, Phil Jackson on triangle.

It's a short trip from jazz to basketball, from Pearl Bailey to Thurl Bailey. The A Train—the Ellington classic or former Bulls center Artis Gilmore—will both bring you to the same place.

What's the best music-hoops crossover?

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