Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part two

This article is part two of the interview with Shaka Gonzalez Brown in honor of the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. Part one of the interview discussed Shaka’s: background, the golden age of Washington DC’s Salsa scene, and some of the inspirations for his own social dancing style. Part two will discuss: the current state of salsa, the rise of other Latin dance styles, and the Capital Congress. The pictures used in this post were once again graciously shared by Shaka himself.

Anwar Dunbar: When I started dancing in 2002, Salsa reigned supreme, but then around 2007, Bachata ascended, and then Kizobma and Zouk.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: They just kept coming up with things to take over from salsa (laughing).

AD: Yes, so you had these other universes coming up. How are things now? You started teaching some Kizomba yourself right? What is the state or balance now of the Latin dances?

SGB: How things now? Well, Salsa used to be the main dish. I was talking to a buddy and he said, ‘Salsa is my steak, and the Bachata is like some mashed potatoes, and one of the other dances might be like some vegetables, but I have to have my steak you know?’

So that was the case for a long time. Bachata and Kizomba are easier dances, so it’s easier to reach the masses. To dance Salsa, it sounds weird to say this – it can be hard and it can be really discouraging for someone. So you have a personality type that wants to learn it, and is going to go into something that’s hard, and they really don’t care about it being discouraging because they have a bigger goal. But there are other people who say, ‘I just want to have fun, and salsa is too complicated.’

So in terms of dealing with that, the instructors, the teachers, and the artists are the ones who have a big responsibility in terms of making it fun as people are on the path, because if you’re discouraging someone who is just starting out, they’re going to find something else to do where they feel more welcome. It’s important to let people know that, ‘You know you’re at this point now, but there’s something to enjoy about being at this point, and we’re going to be with you all of the way whether you’re an advanced dancer or just a beginner.’

I’ve seen this – the schools and the instructors that are able to build the best scenes are the ones who are open and welcome. If you look at folks like Ismael Otero of Caribbean Soul, he’ll have dancers who come in who know nothing from their first day of class, but they know they like the environment and they know they like hanging out with him. As long as you hang out with somebody you’re going to pick up their habits, and you’re going to pick up their touches.

So as the student you say okay, ‘This group of people, I’m going to dance with everybody, they’re friendly and they might be good and they might not be that good, they’re just learning but they’re all a group,’ and that’s what people want to be a part of. They want to be a part of something, so with the Bachata and the Kizomba, the basic steps are pretty simple so there’s not a big range in terms of this person has been doing this for one month, and this person has been doing this for six months.

That six month person can easily dance with that one month person, and still make them feel like they’re doing something, whereas the Salsa can be so exclusive, because as you mentioned, you can get to the social or party and say, ‘I want to dance with the person who has been dancing for five years,’ but they’re going to be so much better than the person who has only been doing it for two weeks, and that two week person could be standing there like, ‘Okay I just spent my money, dressed up, came out and now I’m just standing here not doing anything.’ Then they can go to the Bachata room and someone will grab them and say, ‘Oh you’ve been dancing for two weeks? You’re fine,’ and then they’ll be dancing all night. So it’s how that system is managed that’s really going to determine what happens with the Salsa scene, because people have more options now.

AD: I experienced that firsthand when I moved to Albany (the Capital Region Salsa Social). I did some low level teaching and tried a little bit of DJing as well; both more challenging at times than they look. I wanted to bring Salsa to the area the way that you guys did it, and it just didn’t take. Likewise I witnessed a bunch of people gravitate towards Bachata, and then Kizomba. I just didn’t understand what was going on at the time but you’re right. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

SGB: And because folks are on different paths sometimes, even when a person says, ‘I want to be a DJ,’ they may want to DJ because they have music that they like. I was talking with Lorenzo Haire (DJ Renzo), and we talked about how there is a difference between a DJ and music collector. A music collector is going to have music that they like, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to play something that I like and hope that you’ll like it,’ whereas a DJ will ask, ‘What is it that I can do with this crowd?’

Renzo said the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t make up playlists. I get to the venue, start playing a song, and see how it works. If that works then I’ll work with that, but you don’t come with a full playlist of everything you’re going to play regardless of the people that are there.’ So when you have someone who says, ‘This is the music that I like, and you guys need to like it as well, and this is the only thing I’m going to play for you,’ it can turn people off. Some people might want to hear some Salsa Romantica, some Marc Anthony, some Bachata – do something to draw me in not push me away.

AD: That’s right and I was guilty of that. People definitely have different palates in terms of music and it’s a lot like eating a meal.

So Shaka on that same vein, when I first started dancing in Detroit (the YA Social), I didn’t organize any of the events, so I was unaware of what goes into: starting socials, coordinating with other studios, and building up relationships with other instructors, and I was oblivious to all of the behind the scenes stuff. I got a lot of exposure to that when I moved to Albany where I saw the politics that go on, the business side of dancing, the rivalries, and all of those unpleasant things. Describe your transition from being a student, to an instructor/performer, to a promoter.

SGB: Everything is a transition and an adjustment – like when you go from being the guy who goes out and dances to the guy who teaches, people will look at you through a different lens. There are folks I know who I see when I go out, and we chat it up each time we’re at a party. Our relationship is seeing them at the club and they have fun when they’re dancing. But if they tell me, ‘Oh I’m teaching over here, here, and here now,’ now I’m thinking, ‘Whoa wait a minute what’s your goal there?’ Now I just don’t look at you and see how you dance, but technically how you dance.

Are you just having fun? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you able to communicate that to people and teach that? I don’t want to say you look at the person as less, but you are way more critical of what they’re doing and if they haven’t taken that into account, then that can be a turnoff for me, just like if I was to suddenly promote myself as a Salsa DJ. I mean I’ve been in this thing for 15-16 years, but I know that I am not a DJ. If I tell people I’m a DJ, the DJs I respect are going to hold me to the flame. If you’re a DJ, can you handle this situation? Can you handle that situation? And I realize, no I can’t handle that situation so why am I calling myself a DJ?

So it’s the same thing with being a promoter. I’m much more of a dancer than I am a promoter because when I see folks actually promoting, I think, ‘I should be doing that.’ They’re the ones handing out flyers and talking to people, pushing people and just constantly promoting, and promoting and promoting. That’s the job of a promoter and so on. Each time you want to wear a new hat, you want to make sure you’re willing to go through what it takes to be that, or else you’re not being fair to yourself.

AD: So sometimes you have dancers who say, ‘I want to teach. I want to start a school. I want to host my own event.’ The short version of it all is that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes when you transition from social dancing to the promoting, and the event organizing.

SGB: Every single one of those aspects is a very separate job, and you don’t need to be the do all person. If you’re just good at one particular thing, that’s going to rise. If I try to do everything and say, ‘Oh I can teach. I can promote. I can DJ. I can create flyers. I make my own t-shirts and I can bake cookies,’ then it’s like, okay which one of these things are you really going to do? If you’re average at everything and not doing one thing well, then you’re just that; average. You want to be great at something.

AD: So now Shaka, talk about the Capital Congress.

SGB: We started it in 2005 and it came out of a house party we used to do back in 2002 and 2003. We had a big apartment, my friend Dupree and I, with wood floors, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a house party?’ I was much more of a promoter then because I would send out these long emails. They were funny and they were dramatic. It was just me trying to get people to come to the party. We must have done about six of these parties and we had people flying in from Chicago, coming from North Carolina, coming in from New York, just for these house parties. And so a promoter, my buddy the late David Melendez saw what I was doing with these parties and said that he wanted to do a Salsa Congress in DC. And so I told him, ‘I’m not a promoter,’ and he said, ‘No just do what you normally do,’ and that’s what we did for the Salsa Congress.

That started in 2005, and David passed away in 2007 and I continued doing the event since then. First when I moved out to Portugal and to Miami, it was like a homecoming. For me each year I was like, okay I’m coming back and doing this event which is an opportunity for everyone to be under one roof and of all different skill levels, and all different dance types, and to have access and to be able to learn from the best instructors in the world because they’re all there, and they’re available to interact. I think it’s like you mentioned, it’s important for the instructors to be available so a beginner can come up to them and have the same chance to get a dance as the most advanced dancer. Also the best instructors I know like teaching beginning classes because sometimes we think that the best instructors are going to be teaching the advanced classes.

Sometimes as an advanced dancer, you know how to get the concepts a person is trying to teach whether they’re teaching it well or not. But it’s to the beginner dancers whom you say, ‘Okay let me show you the most important aspects of what you’re doing,’ and getting that guidance from one of the top five dancers in the world, who will say, ‘Let me show you guys two things that if you get these, you’ll be able expand yourselves and take your dance to new level,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh these are the beginners. Let anybody teach them. All we’re going to do is walk back and forth and do right turns.’

There are so many ways you can grow a scene by having the right people – by having that right fertilizer for it. For me that’s what the Congress is. I know it goes well when I can put everybody in the room and just leave and know that folks are going to have a good time and that there’s not going to be any weird drama. There’s not going to be people turning down other people. That to me is the joy of the event. That’s the best part.

AD: So a Congress (in the dance context) is essentially a weekend of: dance workshops, shows-.

SGB: It’s workshops, parties, performances – and you know it’s a Latin dance experience.

AD: And it looks like you guys have expanded it to incorporate: Bachata, Zouk, and Kizomba.

SGB: Well it’s the same thing; I don’t want just steak. I want the steak, the mashed potatoes, and the vegetables. I want everything to come together at the middle of the pot. My focus is making sure Salsa doesn’t end up as the back burner-type thing. I live in Miami and outside of my window, they have the Ultra Music Festival. It’s hundreds of thousands of people all in one place, and as an event organizer, I think to myself, ‘Oh it would be great to have something like that,’ but as a Salsero I think okay there aren’t that many Salseros, and if I had that many people, I would not be able to cater to what it is that I love. I would not be able to have just David Gonzalez, Hector Martinez and Frankie Morales that I can just text and talk to on Facebook and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re putting this kind of sound together and we’re going to do the old Tito Puento version of this with him playing this,’ and knowing that’s an experience unlike any other.

There aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who will come for that, and I don’t care about that. I want to have that two thousand people come together and have that experience of seeing the New Swing Sextet, and seeing Terry and Cécile. One of the biggest joys for me last year was that I did my first performance to a New Swing Sextet song, and to have the New Swing Sextet last year at my congress say, ‘Hey I want to dedicate this song to Shaka,’ and I said, ‘What?’, and they played that song and I was able to dance to it. That for me is the magic of the event and the most important thing is saying, ‘This is Salsa. This is Latin music.’ The other stuff, I can get that anywhere.

AD: Okay Shaka I’ve got three more questions. Running a congress, what has it taught you?

SGB: In terms of organizing a congress? – finding people who are much better at their jobs than I am. I’ve also learned to hire the best people to: manage the dance floors, the sound, the installation, and manage the DJs. Each one of those tasks, I would tell myself, ‘Oh yeah I can do that task,’ but having to do all of those tasks is overwhelming and I learned that each time I find the right person that I can delegate to, then I find that life becomes so much more – Well maybe you even get a chance to dance at your own event. So I’ve learned that you go professional for as much as you can. If you do anything halfway, then you get halfway results.

AD: The last two questions are related to performances. So the original performance you did with Psyon Mauricio Scott; the famous two man routine, is that available anywhere? Is it on YouTube? Or is it locked away in a vault somewhere?

SGB: If you find it let me know (laughing). I have some halfway versions of it but – this was before YouTube even existed. I think I have one version somewhere, but I would like to see it so that I can go and re-learn it and do it somewhere. We danced to “El Presidente Dante” by Frankie Dante Y Su Orquesta Flamboyan. I first heard that song when DJ Bruno played it at Clarendon Grill. But in terms of performances, that is important to me for people to know what song we’re performing to, and who did it and what version, because you have a lot of folks who just start doing it without knowing what they’re doing and why. So we push that on our teams and say, ‘You guys need to know the music we’re dancing to,’ because one of the most embarrassing things for me is to have a dancer on my team who doesn’t know the song we’re dancing to.

AD: The last question; the five man musical chairs routine you did at the Flava Invasion with Pyson Mauricio Scott, Gordon Neil, Sekou McMiller and Leon Rose, is it true you guys put that together in 10 minutes? One of them told me that.

SGB: That routine, we had no idea what we were doing for that routine (laughing). Gordon said he wanted us to do a routine, and we got together in the middle of the Flava Invasion, and we went over to Gordon’s house. He said, ‘I’m thinking we’ll use this song’ (The Hustler by Willie Colon). We counted out the eight counts in the song and realized there were five sections that we could use. And then the chorus so to speak – that horn riff that comes in, we said, ‘Okay that repeats, so we can all do the same thing for that chorus, and then in between, each person will just free-style.’ And then we decided that when we brought each person up, we’d just rotate the chairs. So we did that, and we kind of just listened to it, said okay that works, and then we all left. We had a specific cut of the song we were going to use, so right before we’re about walk onto the stage, Gordon says to me, ‘Oh we’re going to use the whole song,’ and I said, ‘What?’

So we’re all up there (laughing), and if you see us, we’re all counting the song throughout the chorus and looking at each other. Our plan was that we would stomp so that the other person would know that they were cued up. So you see us all just standing there – you might even see our lips moving, and then at one point in time we stomp, and if the person was off on the stomp, then they would know, because everyone else was stomping. You’d say, ‘Oh this is where we are so now it’s my turn to go out there.’That was a lot of fun in terms of how random and spontaneous it was. We all said, ‘We have to make it through this song.’

AD: Okay, because the end result was brilliant, especially when you did that flip (laughing).

SGB: Oh god. That flip – I can tell you why I did that flip, because I was thinking, ‘I can do a backflip,’ when it was my turn to go up, but Leon went before me, and Leon did a backflip and then I thought, ‘Okay now I have to come up with something else now,’ At the same time I’m counting and stomping and trying to remember when I have to go up, so I said, ‘Okay I’ll do a front flip.’ So I did a front flip and you might notice that I didn’t land on my feet. I landed on my back.

So I do the front flip, land on my back, and then I kept dancing and my back was killing me, and as I walked off of the stage, I’m texting my chiropractor (laughing) and saying, ‘Okay I’ve got to see you on Monday.’ But yes I thought I was going to break my back out there, and there was something that happened with Gordon – he was doing his free-style, and he grabbed his foot as he was spinning around, and afterwards I asked him, ‘Did you just grab your boot?,’ to which he said, ‘I was feeling it (laughing).’ That was the fun of the Flava Invasion that year. There’s a story behind everything if you get to watch that show again.

AD: Yes when I saw it, I was trying to show it to everyone and telling everyone how great it was.

Well Shaka thank you again for this amazing interview. We covered a lot. Thanks for helping me get through graduate school, your teaching and your inspiration, and even for sharing some music files here and there over the years. I look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Capital Congress this year in June.

SGB: Okay thank you Anwar. I loved being a part of this, and I’ll see you at the Congress.

To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Mother’s Day 2018: Memories of my grandmothers

Following my 2017 Mother’s Day blog post, I had to think long and hard about what to write for 2018. Not coming up with a topic for some time, I figured that I’d simply promote my 2017 post once again. That post touched a lot of people, and it talked about some advice my mother gave me about getting married – advice which helped save me and our family from bedlam and chaos. Recently while at the gym, a topic came to me for 2018 – a remembrance of both of my maternal and paternal grandmothers, and their lasting impressions on my life as a child, and now as an adult.

* * *

As described in the story of my blog, I grew up in Buffalo, NY. Following my parent’s divorce, we returned to New York State’s western-most city where my mother grew up. With most of my aunts and uncles having fled Buffalo along with many other blacks in their peer group, my grandmother moved in with us – on top of us as most houses in the Buffalo were what I call ‘true’ duplexes. True duplexes are singular structures containing multiple units, all under one mortgage. Each unit has its own living room, bathroom, kitchen and multiple bedrooms – something you don’t see here in the Washington, DC market – something I plan to revisit in greater detail in another post where I’ll discuss some of my adventures in learning how to invest in real estate.

My maternal grandmother was a very beautiful woman as a younger woman and as a senior, and there were always suitors. I didn’t fully appreciate it then, but an advantage I’ll always have over my younger cousins is that I was able to spend quality time with my maternal grandmother during my childhood. Some of my first cousins just under me age-wise either didn’t get to spend time with her due to life circumstances, or didn’t appreciate their time with her while she was still in good health.

Curiosity was always in my nature. As stated in the story of my blog, I always enjoyed hearing my elders talk and tell their stories. As result, I regularly asked my maternal grandmother questions about varying topics and sought her wisdom. Sharing everything would literally take volumes to write, so I’ll just share a few.

“My children are all different Anwar,” Grandma told me more times than I can count. It was a simple, but profound statement. Over the years she observed that while her eight children were born to the same mother, ate the same food, and for the most part learned the same set of values, each of them figuratively ‘scattered’ into eight different directions – some closely adhering to what they’d been taught while others went their own way, setting in motion the inevitable family dramas, fallouts, squabbles and rivalries.  She also strongly believed that in terms of family, “The stronger ones should take care of the weaker ones.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but grandma taught me my first lesson about the concept of “Nature vs. Nurture”. This was many years before I had heard of Dr. Thomas Sowell, Dr. Walter E. Williams, or Malcolm Gladwell. It was decades before I met the mentor whom I regularly discuss this concept with – the same mentor who encouraged me to list out the principles of my blog. With such vast differences in one family, isn’t it logical to expect such variability in a whole society of millions of people?

Are our lives extensions of what we were taught in our familial ecosystems? Are our lives the very essence of who we are as individuals? Or are our lives mixtures of both? What I’ve seen in my own family suggests that our lives are mixtures of both. What have you seen in your familial ecosystems?

“People should only speak in ‘tongues’ if there is someone there to interpret what’s being said,” Grandma told me in my late teens. I was raised in a black ‘Baptist’ church in the north. I thus had no idea what I was in for when transferring to Johnson C. Smith University in the region affectionately called the ‘Bible Belt’ – a region where Christianity is much more fanatical, militant, supernatural, and in some instances, cultish.

I had never seen so many people catching the ‘Holy Ghost’, running around their church services, kicking things over, and ‘speaking in tongues’. It all collectively scared me initially and shook whatever faith I had at the time. My maternal grandmother was the first to tell me that this speaking in tongues thing, which was essentially a verbal revelation from the ‘Holy Spirit’, is something not to be done lightly and for show – something that my peers from the southeast seemed to be engaging in.

My maternal grandmother shared things with me about our family, and about the past that I didn’t hear anywhere else. If I recall correctly, she encouraged my mother to let my brother and I form our own opinions about our father, and to also allow us to have a relationship with him. She further encouraged my mother not to demonize him. Apparently, there are a lot of mothers who vengefully keep their children away from their fathers – demonizing them once their romantic relationship breaks down – often to the detriment of the children.

As described in my second essay for A Voice for Men titled “Two very well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own”, I heard my maternal grandmother discuss the differences between being “Providers” and “Fathers” – something which gave me deep insight into what’s expected of a man should he sire children. Apparently, a man can be one without being the other – the ideal situation is that he’s both. As I got older I found that many of my peers in Black America had neither.

“You raise your children for society.” My maternal grandmother never said this to me a directly. It was one of my grandmother’s philosophies/values my mother shared with me. It meant that your children weren’t just things that you carelessly brought into the world. If you had them, it was your responsibility to make sure that they made the world a better place, that they would contribute something positive, and didn’t end up in someone’s prison.

“Be with someone who loves you more.” This again is something not said directly to me. My mother shared this piece of advice that my maternal grandmother shared with her – something I don’t think my uncles were taught. At the time I was in my early 30s, and entangled in a very, very toxic romantic relationship that I couldn’t break free from. I loved this particular woman more than she loved me which created a very bad imbalance. Now considering myself a bit of a ‘Men’s Rights Activist/Advocate’, I feel compelled to share this part of the ‘game’ with other men. Thus, for any man reading this, keep this little nugget in your mind because I’m seeing that many girls are taught this part of the game, but not the boys which is in many ways unfair.

“Be a good son, Anwar.” My grandmother told me this towards the end of her life. At that point she had developed some health ailments, and had become dependent upon the care of her own children. I think that she was encouraging me at that time to be an attentive and caring son if and when my own parents needed me later in life. Now in my early 40s it’s clear to me that not every child cares for their parents in their last stages, even though it’s something they may have been taught to do.

Again I feel as though I was one of the lucky grandchildren to have her there for the majority of my childhood. Both my brother and I are the only two of her grandchildren who can actually say that. She was there until I went away to college, before moving to Georgia for the remainder of her life. That’s the last place that I saw her. That was March of 2008.

* * *

In terms of my paternal grandmother, I’ll start by saying that there are often other causalities in divorces besides the married couple and their children. Sometimes it’s other relatives who don’t get to see the children of those divorces as often. It’s something that affects all parties involved for years to come. There are many instances where children of broken relationships have little contact with the other sides of their family – this is just one. I think ours was just circumstance.

I didn’t know my father’s mother that well before she passed away in August of 1999. We lived in Buffalo and she lived seven hours away in New York City. We were younger at the time and didn’t travel independently – especially not to places like New York City – a dangerous and overwhelming place if you asked my mother. I thus only saw my paternal grandmother on the one or two visits to see my father – not a significant amount of time.

That said as a child, I fondly recall going down to upper Manhattan where she lived and staying in her two-bedroom apartment in one of those orange-brick ‘Public Housing’ buildings you see in many of New York City’s five boroughs – one in a set of three or four, with a shared playground, park benches and basketball courts on the ground level. The elevators had that smell of urine and were ‘tagged’ with markers and spray paint. It was the coolest things for me to see at that time as it was so different than what I knew back in Buffalo. Her apartment overlooked the elevated train tracks leading to and from Grand Central Station – a perfect bird’s eye view. A lover of trains back then, I would spend lots of time in her windows watching the “Metro-North” commuter trains going back and forth, and hoping to spot the “Amtrak” trains which ran less frequently.

She cooked for us when we came, and boy could she cook. We ate like kings. She spoiled us with big breakfasts, and large dinners – usually involving something fried like chicken or salmon croquets. There was also my grandfather’s ‘Shrimp Gumbo’ recipe which my father says he has laying around in a box somewhere. The hallmark of the breakfasts were the waffles, beef bacon and cheese eggs. Then there were the banana cakes on our birthdays. There was one particular visit where I ate so much that my mother said that she could visibly see how much weight I had gained when we got off the train back in Buffalo towards the end of one summer.

Puff Daddy was performing at a gym with Heavy D and there was a shooting,” my paternal grandmother said on one of visits as young teens. We were up at my father’s house and she had seen a news broadcast from New York City. We were preparing to eat one of her wonderful meals. It was the early 1990s and we knew who Heavy D was because he had been out for a while and had numerous hits and music videos. I had never heard of this Puff Daddy before, and wondered what she was talking about. His music just hadn’t made it up to Western New York yet, so we didn’t know anything about him. Three to four years later, Puff Daddy created one of the hottest rap labels of all time; Bad Boy Records. It’s funny when I think about it.

Those were rare occurrences though – specks in the entirety of my life. Similar to my father, because our time was limited, all of the times were fun times at that stage – meant to make up for the lost time and packing in as many good experiences possible. I’m thankful for them, but I can look back as an adult and realize what they were. I also realize the ‘why’ now – something you don’t know as a child on a deeper level.

I didn’t get to know my paternal grandmother on a deeper level the way that I got to know my maternal grandmother – there were no substantial passages of knowledge and wisdom. Well actually, there is one which I’ll keep to myself. I can tell you a lot about her though. She was very gregarious, and always laughing – she was very bubbly and always smiling for one reason or the other. She really enjoyed playing the lottery which is probably where my father got it from. They would play the ‘lot-to’ and attentively watch the numbers on the news every night hoping to win something. Based upon stories from my father, she was also a very superstitious woman – she didn’t believe in picking up pennies on the street, or splitting poles and people when walking down the street. Those are just the two that I know about.

One of my biggest regrets is not doing enough for her, like getting her gifts around the holidays. On my mother’s side of the family birthdays and holidays were sacred and not getting gifts was literally playing with your life. There were times when my mother had to remind me of those expectations until I got to the point of knowing what to do on my own. Gifts weren’t as important to Dad, and thus the importance of getting them for his mother wasn’t engrained in me. There was one instance as an early teen when I realized that I should have gotten her something for Christmas. It wasn’t something she said or reprimanded me over, but instead I realized in her nonverbal body language – her disappointment – something I’ll never forget.

* * *

I’ll end this with a few closing points. My maternal grandmother was a great cook as well. She made a lot of things. Her macaroni and cheese recipe was popular when I’ve made it for some coworkers. She lives on through it among other things. For many years, I needed reminders from my own mother about Grandma’s November 8th birthday. I remembered after a while. My father was an only child and thus my brother and myself were his mother’s only grandchildren. I didn’t understand it growing up, but having ‘Grands’ is actually a really big deal. I guess that explains why she spoiled us so much when she saw us. Oh, and I’ve finally gotten my hands on her Shrimp Gumbo recipe and will be experimenting with it soon.

I’m going to wrap this up by saying that as I grew into adulthood, I watched both of my grandmothers’ declines, and I still remember the last time I saw both. They passed away almost ten years apart. To whoever reads this, man or woman, I encourage you to take care of your health as much as possible as you get older, as we all inevitably will. To the younger folks, cherish your elders as much as you can while they’re still here. Get as much wisdom as you can while they’re still around, as you never know if and how it will help you as you progress through your own years, and the challenges in them. Lastly, do as much for them as you can while you still have them.

Thank you for taking the time out to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Mother’s Day 2017: One of my mother’s greatest gifts, getting engaged, and avoiding my own personal fiscal cliff
Father’s Day 2017: Reflections on some of Dad’s money and life lessons
Two well-behaved boys left to figure things out on their own: Reflections on growing up ‘Blue Pill’
Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement
The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, on Instagram at @anwaryusef76, and at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part one

“The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.”

Before becoming a scientist and a writer, I was a scientist and a dancer. I fell in love with Salsa music and dance during graduate school, and became hooked. The dancer I emulated the most was Shaka Gonzalez Brown, founder the Capital Congress Latin Music and Dance Festival.

Two years ago, one of my last pieces on the Examiner was an interview with my Salsa-hero Shaka Gonzalez Brown. We talked about both his personal journey as a dancer, and his signature event, the Capital Congress which takes place every June. I’ll most likely promote this timeless piece annually as it not only discusses a magical time in my own life, but it also gives anyone unfamiliar with it, a look into the world of Latin music and dance.  The pictures in this post were graciously shared by Shaka himself.

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In Washington DC, the words Capital and Congress typically bring to mind political showdowns between Democrats and Republicans. There is however an annual gathering in Washington DC which uses the same words but for a more fun purpose; the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. The much anticipated event will feature four days of non-stop: Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, and Zouk. There will be numerous: workshops, master classes, boot camps, and parties. In honor of the event, the co-founder of the Capital Congress, Shaka Gonzalez Brown granted an interview on April 25 to discuss: his journey as a dancer, teacher, and promoter, the current popularity of the Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress.

Anwar Dunbar: Shaka, first off thank you for this opportunity to interview you. I hadn’t been out dancing in a long time when I saw you at Mr. Mambo’s Salsa Social. I write about education and STEM-related topics for the Examiner and when I was at the social, I recalled that Salsa dancing is a science in itself. In addition to educating oneself on becoming a dancer socially or professionally, it’s also very important for personal health, and quality of life. With the Capital Congress approaching, I figured it would be a great time to potentially interview you, so again thank you.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: It’s funny how those light bulb moments happen.

AD: Yes it is. My questions will cover a broad range of topics: your background, varying aspects of social dancing, the different Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress. So with that, we’ll get started. So Shaka you’re originally from Washington DC right?

SGB: That’s right. I was born at the Howard University Hospital.

AD: How did you get started dancing Salsa? Is it something you grew up with or at some point did you wander into a studio? In an interview years ago in Johnny Johnson’s La Voz Del Mambo magazine, I think you said that there was a female (laughing) – which is the reason a lot of us guys get into this, but how did you get started?

SGB: I got interested in Salsa in my senior year of college at Florida A & M University (FAMU). There was a Cuban restaurant I liked going to, and there was waitress who I thought was the prettiest lady in the world. I would go there and eat about three to four times a week. One day she told me about their end of the year party; the pig roast barbecue outside party type of thing and she told me to come to it. She could have told me to go anywhere else and I would have been there.

I got there and they were playing Merengue. She just kind of moved around and bopped around and she asked me to dance. I didn’t know what to do, and I was confused. My friend went off and danced with her and I realized that I had been coming to this place so many years looking for that one opportunity, and I had just missed it. And that’s when I decided that I was going to learn how to do this, and maybe one day I’d get a chance to dance with her.

AD: Now in terms of your lineage, are you part Cuban?

SGB: My grandfather is Cuban; he grew up in Tampa. That’s where my name comes from.

AD: You do dance fulltime now, but your educational background is in Information Technology systems (IT) right?

SGB: Yes I studied IT; computer information systems. I graduated last century.

AD: When did you decide that you wanted to do dance fulltime in terms of teaching, performing and promoting events?

SGB: I didn’t so much decide that I wanted to do dance fulltime. For what I was doing in IT, I was getting great jobs. I graduated, and I was high in my classes. For what that experience was in school, the path I was on – I wasn’t really happy with it. My priorities in life have always been to: travel, and to interact with people, to teach and to learn – that’s pretty much what keeps me keeps me going. I wasn’t waking up excited to go to work to setup computers, and mail them off, and set up more computers. There was no joy to keeping networks secure. It was just a constant demand, and it starts to tug at you. It created a vacuum and so I said let me do this Salsa teaching thing that I really enjoy after I had quit the job, and it’s been growing since then.

AD: Now were your coworkers surprised to hear that you were this instructor and skilled dancer?

SGB: My coworkers? They just thought it was a hobby. When you’re spending more time doing your hobby than your actual job, you have to make some adjustments. My thought process was that if I’m spending 10-12 hours on a job from the time I wake up to the time I get home, and what I really enjoy doing, I’m only doing for four to five hours each day, how can I enjoy doing what I love doing for eight hours a day, make that my fulltime job and put that same energy and commitment into it? Then I would be a lot happier, and then numbers-wise I said, ‘You know I can make something like this work.’

AD: Now I don’t know if you remember this, but on one of your visits to Detroit for the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social, I told you, ‘Shaka out of all of the dancers I’ve seen you’re my favorite,’ to which you looked at me with a surprised expression and said, ‘Thank you.’ But yes you became my favorite dancer. You’re going to laugh at this, but it got to the point where when I moved to Albany, NY, my friend Lana Ortiz literally started calling me, ‘Shaka.’

SGB: I really appreciate that (laughing).

AD: Seriously. Albany was more of an isolated community at the time so when I moved there I was saying things like, ‘Shaka Brown, Shaka Brown, he’s my favorite dancer-,’ and I would just go on and on.

SGB: I really appreciate hearing that. One day I’m going to go to Albany. Folks are going to say, ‘You’re not Shaka Brown,’ and I’m going to say, ‘Yes I am (laughing).’

AD: In another instance Lana was riding around in her car with someone from one of New York City’s well established dance companies. I called her on her cell phone and she picked up the phone and said, ‘Shaka?’ You could hear the other person literally ask, ‘Is that Shaka Brown?’ Seriously (laughing).

The first time I remember seeing you was at the Canada Salsa Congress in 2002 or 2003. I think Troy and Jorjet were having an issue with their music during a workshop, and you lent them your iPod or something. That was around the time you were leading the Clavekazi Dance Company and you guys had the original lineup. I think that was the “Golden Age” of Salsa in DC, and I moved here three to four years afterwards. What was it like? I hear so much about it. You were out social dancing pretty regularly. Psyon was out regularly and there were a number of dance companies and schools here all at once. Describe that time.

SGB: Well that Golden Age – it’s scary to think about that because to think about a Bronze Age and a Golden Age, it sounds like it was a millennium ago. That was probably 2000 to 2003 or 2004 because once I graduated from FAMU, I came back to DC, and then moved to Brazil when I quit my job. I came back at the beginning of 2001. Our goal was to start a dance company, and teach people how to dance and to promote mambo (NY Style On2 Salsa). The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.

We would go out dancing just about every night: Clarendon Grill on Mondays, the Barking Dog on Tuesdays, and then Zanzibar on Wednesdays. Zanzibar was like the peak of the week and after that we just kind of worked our way around to other place the rest of the week; Thursdays and Fridays we would go to Havana Village, and the Salsa Room/Cecelia’s. Saturdays there was Relish which changed its name to Ooh La La, and that was right downtown. Sundays you might have off unless you had a barbecue over someone’s house. But there was just so much opportunity for people to go out and dance, and go out and practice.

You had people who just loved the music and loved the dancing; people like Eileen Torres. It was so important to her that she would be at Zanzibar regularly. Folks would come out and she would use that as an opportunity to teach them about the music and the artists. She would bring people down from New York City and say, “This is Pequeño Johnny playing the congas.” And so in that way, she would bring life to the music so folks were more connected to what was going on, and we really appreciated that.

And even the DJs, DC has some of the best Latin DJs in terms of their knowledge of the music and their commitment to knowing what they’re doing when they’re playing. It’s not just, “Oooh I like that song.” They looked at the album, the singers, the percussionists, every single person on there to ensure that it was going to be a good combination. We took a lot of it for granted because I just thought that was how it was supposed to be. I didn’t realize until I started going out to other cities that there wasn’t that appreciation and the same focus on the music in other places.

AD: Now on that same vein, what’s the Miami Salsa community like in comparison to DC’s or New York’s?

SGB: Miami is a different kind of scene. It’s definitely more Latin. In terms of Salsa, there are way more stations. You can turn on the radio here and hear Latin music all of the time. That’s not an issue. In DC, you’ll have Nancy Alonzo – you’ll have stations where for the next two hours, she for example will have a Salsa program, and that’s all they’re going to do.

She would do a similar thing to what Eileen did at Zanzibar; promote the knowledge of that particular Salsa culture, whereas down here in Miami, you turn on the radio, you’ll get a station that speaks Spanish, but you’ll get lots of Bachata and a wide range of other Latin genres, so it’s not necessarily very specific to where you’ll only get Salsa. I really can’t speak on New York, because I know it has a huge salsa community, and with the amount of Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans there, it’s way past what I would feel comfortable discussing. When I’m in New York City, I just like being out there on a corner and seeing someone with a conga,
and just enjoying the music.

AD: Yes there is nothing like it. I went to the Jimmy Anton Social after not going for a couple of years, and I saw the same core group of folks dancing hard for four hours on a Sunday evening. There’s nothing like it.

So a year or so after I saw you at the Canada Salsa Congress that first time, you actually came to Detroit; the first of three times, and I think it was around that time that I bought your Advanced Turn Patterns VHS with Griselle Poncé. Shortly thereafter I was doing the arm bump move where you bump her hand with your elbow and catch it on the other side. Then I got you step by step series with Yesenia Peralta. The interesting thing is that after I watched your instructional videos and then watched you social dance, the two looked very different.  The following is rare footage of Shaka dancing with the great Magna Gopal at the 2007 Atlanta Salsa Congress.

As opposed to going move to move to move, which is what a lot of young (and older) dancers do, your dancing (partner-work and styling) looked very improvisational, and very organic – almost like you were out there experimenting every time with every song, and with every lady. You just made it look really easy, and really fun. You also had your own image: the polo shirt, jeans, sneakers, etc. How did you develop your style? Who were your influences?

SGB: I developed that particular style because I like Kung Fu movies. I know that sounds funny but I spent so much time in college watching Kung Fu movies and it wasn’t about the plot. I just loved seeing the interaction of the fight sequences. I didn’t want lots of cutaways, and I wanted to see how a fighter would go from this move to that move and after that move how he would go to this move – and so it’s not a plan. In my mind it was not knowing what was coming up, and just seeing how people reacted to it. That’s what I love.

I’m not really a fighter so the closest thing I get to that is partner dancing. It’s the same thing of – I’m going to try to do this thinking that my partner is going to do that, and if they don’t do that I need to be able to do something different and adjust to it in such a way to make it enjoyable, and non-painful. It’s the adjustment to that that I love. So what I did was I took classes anywhere that I could, because I liked seeing how different people taught.

But the moves that I’ve learned in the classes, I’ve never taken it as, ‘Okay this is choreography.’ These were tools with which I would try to figure out how to get from one to the other. Likewise the way that I teach, I try to teach things in terms of them being very granular; you can do this move at this time, and you can do that move at this time, and then you can make this transition – so the students can kind of build their own dance.

So when you watch me dance, I’m not going in there with a plan. I’m just going in saying, okay it looks like this person likes this band or they don’t, their arms are strong or they’re not, or maybe they like this kind of song – so all of those variables are what I throw into a soup, and as a chef I say, “Okay what would I do with these ingredients?” And that’s where it comes from. It’s like my mind is constantly running, but I’m living in that moment, and that’s what I love about it.

AD: That’s fascinating because when dancers start out, if the partner work breaks down for whatever reason, the lead or the follow will apologize for making a perceived mistake. The other thing I observed watching you was that your musicality was always on point.

SGB: Sometimes I’m dancing with someone and they say, ‘I’m not sure I can follow you,’ and I tell them, ‘I have no idea of what I’m going to do, so I can’t expect you to know so don’t worry about it. There’s no plan here. We’re just going to enjoy this song right now.’

AD: Now one of the other most important things I learned from you when you visited us at the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social in Detroit was that you danced with all of the ladies regardless of level and had a blast with all of them. When me and some of my peers were younger dancers and trying to prove ourselves, we only wanted to dance with the intermediate and advanced ladies, but I noticed that you didn’t discriminate and afterwards I decided that I too would dance with everyone regardless of level, and try to make it fun. So you learn a lot by watching.

SGB: Yes you do. There’s no scale; this is a good dancer, this is a great dancers, this is a fantastic dancer and you only want to dance with people at this level or at that level. It’s kind of like an ocean where you say, ‘I only want to go in the ocean where the water is this deep.’ There are so many things to appreciate at so many different levels. Every single person you dance with, you’re understanding them, and you’re talking with them and communicating with them. If their timing is horrible, that’s what you guys can work on; giving her something you guys can share and appreciate.

Sometimes I get turned off when someone says, ‘Oh you should dance with this person because they’re a good dancer.’ As I dance with them, it might not be a good dance because what someone else considers a good dance might not be a good dance for me just because they can spin a lot or they’re really light. Being really light isn’t just the dance because I’ve danced with people who didn’t really do anything at all, but I learned something because it was a particular song where they told me, ‘Oh I really love this song,’ and for me I may have just heard the beat and wasn’t listening to what they were listening to. I may hear something else and I learn something, and it didn’t matter how many times we spun or how many cross body leads, or turn patterns we did. It was about that experience, and you get that from every dance.

AD: That’s interesting because as young dancers, when you go to Congresses, you feel like you have to dance with: Magna Gopal, Griselle Poncé, Anna Masacote, etc.

SGB: The “A-Listers”.

AD: Yes and if they tell you, ‘No,’ you’re crushed but if they say, ‘Yes,’ it makes your whole weekend, and you feel like you’ve really come up and been validated in some way.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. It will be continued in part two of, Shaka G Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Buffalo Traditional’s Jason Rowe discusses his college and professional basketball careers and coaching

This interview is the second part of my interview with Buffalo basketball legend Jason Rowe. In the first part of our interview we discussed his background, and the run he and his teammates went on at Buffalo Traditional High School in the early- to mid-1990s in our city league, the ‘Yale Cup’ and postseason play. In the second part of the interview we discussed his basketball career after Buffalo Traditional – college, the professional level, and now his current experiences coaching in Western New York. The pictures in this post were shared courtesy of Jason himself.

Anwar Dunbar: It’s been documented that academics prevented some Yale Cup players from going to big time Division 1 schools. What kind of student were you at Buffalo Traditional?

Jason Rowe: I was a ‘Merit’ and ‘Honor Roll’ student. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to play. My parents instilled education in me from day one. My mother and father were constantly on me about grades. If my grades weren’t above a certain GPA, then I wasn’t allowed to play basketball. My father actually took me off the ‘Modified’ team at Traditional for half the season because my average was an 87% and not a 90% or better. So in no way shape or form would I say that Buffalo Traditional didn’t prepare me. No!!! My parents prepared me and instilled how important my education was.

AD: That’s actually a big deal. I saw that happen to a couple of players at Hutch-Tech. It seems that if your parents don’t set that high standard, you’ll do just enough to stay eligible to play and, in some instances, just walk that line of eligibility as I did in some classes.

When did the colleges start recruiting you? Were you a sophomore or a junior? Or were they looking at you as a freshman?

JR: I was a sophomore and it just blew up out of nowhere. I remember my first two letters were from Duke University and the University of Michigan. They were ‘generics’, but you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t being recruited by Duke and Michigan.

AD: How did it feel?

JR: I thought I was the king of the world. Even though they were questionnaires, these were the guys that were on TV. These were Coach Steve Fisher’s (Michigan) and Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s (Duke) signatures right there so it was a big deal.

AD: Where did you end up going?

JR: Loyola of Maryland.

AD: Why did you choose that school?

JR: It felt like home. I got injured at the ‘ABCD Camp’ and a lot of teams didn’t know how serious it was. My back was just ruined. A lot of schools wanted me to sign ‘late’, but I didn’t want to sign late. My mentality is if you want me, you want me now. I didn’t want to wait for them to figure out if another kid was going to sign. I was second or third on a number of college’s boards, but if you say you want me then I felt like, let’s get this thing done. Let’s figure it out. I wanted to focus on my grades and winning the state championship, so I didn’t want to go the whole season with phone calls and distractions.

AD: So signing late is something colleges want you to do when they’re unsure of your health?

JR: All schools have a list of about five to ten people at your position, and it’s in order of how much they want them. I was two, three, or four on a couple of lists, and I wanted to be their number one. If they wanted me, I wanted to make it happen. I didn’t want to wait for someone else to not sign for them to want me. In my brain, that meant they didn’t want me.

AD: So it’s kind of like dating (laughing).

JR: Exactly (laughing).

AD: What were the biggest adjustments you had to make from playing at Buffalo Traditional to playing on the college level and being away from home?

JR: I had family in Maryland so being away from home wasn’t an issue for me. The biggest issue for me was learning the point guard position because in high school we didn’t have any plays. In college now it was about game management – knowing what’s a ‘good’ shot, knowing what’s a ‘bad’ shot, and how to keep your teammates happy. There were so many things that I was lacking that I had to pick up very fast.

AD: Interesting. So when you were at Buffalo Traditional and an opponent threw up a ‘2-3’ or a ‘3-2’ zone defense against you, how would you all approach that if you didn’t have plays?

JR: We knew what to do whether it was running a ‘Motion’ play or a ‘Pick and Roll’. We felt like we were so talented that we could figure it out anyway. We had athletes, ball handlers, big men, and shooters. We had everything so we could chuck up a shot, and with Adrian, LaVar, and Damien – someone was going to get the rebound (see part one of this interview). We could get a three-pointer if we needed it – enough of us could shoot three-pointers. It was sort of like ‘fool’s gold’ because you could get away with it at the high school level, but at the college level, that’s not how it works.

AD: So in college you had to learn how to play the point guard position from more of an Xs and Os standpoint.

JR: Yes, I had to learn how to play basketball.

AD: Did you play all four years?

JR: I played three and a half. I left halfway through my senior year due to grades.

AD: When I was an undergraduate, I do remember sitting in my dorm room one day and seeing Loyola of Maryland on ESPN, and seeing you suited up in your green and white uniform. What did you major in?

JR: Elementary Education.

AD: Did you just encounter a hard series of classes, or was it just juggling being a Division 1 student-athlete?

JR: There was a lot going on in my personal life and I didn’t know how to handle things.

AD: At any point did you dream of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA)?

JR: Yes, for a very long time. For anyone who plays basketball long enough, that’ s going to be a dream – especially someone who studied it, watched it, and idolized players in the NBA.

AD: In any of your years at Loyola, did you guys make the ‘Big Dance’ (the NCAA’s Men’s College Basketball Tournament)?

JR: The one basketball thing that drives me crazy to this day is not experiencing the Big Dance. Anything else that goes on in basketball is fine, but not playing in the Big Dance drives me insane.

AD: How did you go from playing at Loyola of Maryland to playing professional basketball overseas?

JR: It was through an agency. My college coach gave me a ton of agent letters – dozens and dozens of them and I literally went through all of them, researched them, and figured out which one worked best for me. I literally had an interview process with a couple of agencies and picked an agent that would best help me to further my career overseas and further my basketball career in general.

AD: So you must have done exceptionally well at Loyola for agents to have wanted to sign you.

JR: Prior to my leaving school, I was actually projected late first round and late second round going into my senior year in the NBA Draft. When word gets around, you’ll have agencies calling.

AD: What kind of numbers were you putting up? Were you putting up ‘Triple Doubles’?

JR: I’m trying to remember – my senior year, I was around 25th in the country in scoring, 15th in assists, and 3rd in steals. In my junior year I was 2nd or 3rd in steals, and in my sophomore and senior years it was similar.

AD: What was it like playing professional basketball overseas? Which club or franchise did you play for?

JR: I played in 11 countries for 18 teams. I played 15 years and I don’t regret a thing. It was beautiful.

AD: Wow. So this was all over Europe?

JR: I’m going to try to do it in order. I played in: Cyprus, Israel, Poland, Argentina, France, Italy, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, and Morocco.

AD: So you were playing against home-grown European players, as well as players from the United States too? Which names come to mind?

JR: Yes. When I was in Turkey, I played against Allen Iverson. In Italy, I played against Danilo Gallinari and Khalid El-Amin. In France, I played against Hollis Price. C.C. Harrison had a big name. I played against Rudy Fernandez when I was in Spain. Lamar Odom signed to a team in Spain, but he didn’t play that night. Manu Ginobli, Marco Bellinelli – I played against those guys. I played against Troy Bell who I’m still friends with. I played against a lot of people.

AD: I remember you posting a picture of you playing against Allen Iverson, also known as ‘The Answer’ on Facebook. What was it like playing against ‘A.I.’?

JR: There’s two sides to it. There’s the ‘wow-factor’, and there’s the competitive part. The wow-factor lasts about five seconds. I walked on the court and I remember looking at him. He’s not bigger than me – maybe an inch taller. His arms are super long and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Wow, this was once the best player in the NBA.’ He was for sure one of the best players in the world, and he was no bigger than me. And then it was like, ‘Alright jump ball let’s go.’ It literally happened that fast. You’re in competition mode and you don’t ever want to let your opponent see a weakness. While it was a blessing to be able to share the floor with a Hall of Famer and an icon, the competitiveness kicks in and it’s like, ‘Okay you’ve got to go to work.’

AD: There was always some controversy about whether or not he was 6’.

JR: He’s not 6’ (laughing).

AD: Okay, we’re almost done Jason. One of the common themes in my interviews with some of the former Yale Cup players is wasted and underdeveloped talent. The Buffalo News actually wrote a series of stories on this during your junior year at Buffalo Traditional. With players like you and Damien Foster taking your basketball careers beyond the Yale Cup, what are your thoughts on the challenges of our city league and that era? We didn’t have a solid Junior Varsity program like the suburban and private schools, and most of our ‘league’ games were immediately after school. There were just so many differences between what we had versus the suburban and private schools. Talk about that.

JR: I think that’s a valid argument. Our games at Traditional got moved to 7:30 pm because they were so popular. Being a coach now myself, I do think the development is completely different. I’m in a private school right now – Bishop Timon. The things that I have access to, public schools don’t have access to, and what you said was perfect regarding the development of a Junior Varsity team. Having access to the gym and being able to develop my kids in a particular type of way that public schools don’t have access to – I think it’s unfair, and because of that I think you see the difference between public schools and private schools. One is structured and one doesn’t necessarily have the same structure, because they’re not allowed to do certain things. Because of insurance or whatever the reason is, you see this big difference immediately, and in terms of athletics, I think something needs to be done about that.

AD: Is that something the School Board would have to address?

JR: Yes, because from my understanding, the biggest issue is insurance. That’s what I was told. I’ve always wondered why some schools have access and other schools don’t. It’s unfortunate because for a lot of these kids, athletics is their way out of their toxic situations. So why not have things in place for them to look forward to? If they know that there is an adult or adults who are there in the gym to help develop their minds and bodies to give them a place of peace and tranquility, why not do that? Why not develop these everyday life skills, instead of having these kids with nowhere to go, and no access to anything, and now they’re doing something they don’t need to be doing? I would love to sit in on one of the meetings and get to the bottom of why these things aren’t happening.

AD: I’ve heard you DJ at Dennis Wilson’s Oak Room, but you’re coaching now yourself at Bishop Timon. After your long playing career, how are you enjoying coaching?

JR: I love it. To be honest, coaching wasn’t something I was looking forward to – I just wasn’t into it. I don’t like stress – the yelling and the screaming. I’m actually a calm coach, and my kids think it’s hilarious. I don’t yell and I don’t scream and yet I know how to get my point across without demeaning or belittling the kids. That works for me, and I relate to my kids the best way that I can and it’s working for our team. We’re having huge success this year. I’ve tried to take my experience from playing for four different coaches and meshing everything together to come up with my own coaching style.

AD: So you’re not a ‘yeller’?

JR: No, not at all, and I get that from my mother. I just give the kids a look and they know when I’m serious or something wasn’t done right. I also demonstrate – I get in the practices and in the drills because I think it’s pointless to tell the kids they did something wrong and not show them the right way. That works for me, and now the kid doesn’t make the same mistake twice. I’m very, very hands on.

AD: How are the kids today different from 20 years ago?

JR: I do training as well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of hardworking kids. I think the era as a whole is more concerned about how people view them as opposed to actually getting into the gym and working. I think kids are worried about rankings and social media ‘likes’. Granted it’s a 20-year difference. We didn’t have a phone to let the world know we were in the gym working out, so their mentality is different because they have access to different things. My kids know that when it’s time for practice and training, they have to shut their phones off. When it’s training time give me an hour, and when it’s practice time, give me two hours. After that you can do you what you want to do, but lock into this and we’re fine.

AD: That’s true. We didn’t have Facebook or YouTube twenty years ago.

JR: In the first week of practice I told the kids, ‘Do not worry about polls. Do not worry about rankings. They don’t mean anything. Polls are just a bunch of people’s opinions of who you are. Being ranked No. 1 in November doesn’t mean we’re state championship material.’

AD: Does that mean when you are at Buffalo Traditional, you guys didn’t look at the Buffalo News weekly ‘News Cage Poll’ to see if you were ranked over Cardinal O’Hara, Burgard or John F. Kennedy?

JR: Of course, but as a retired player, a coach and a trainer, I understand that those don’t mean anything. You still have to go out and perform, and do what you need to do.

AD: Is there a difference between the kids you have at Timon versus what you would have if you coached in the Buffalo Public School system (BPS)?

JR: No. I was doing training and I had BPS kids. What works for me is that I respect them and they respect me. Fortunately, I played basketball a long time and I can help them get to where they want to be in terms of this game. Because of that I’m able to keep their attention for an exceptional amount of time. I’ve gone where they want to go, so if was in the BPS I don’t think it would be a big issue.

AD: Is there anything you would change about your playing days?

JR: I would say not failing out of school, finishing my degree and my senior year at Loyola of Maryland. Otherwise, I enjoyed every single time I stepped onto the basketball court – high school, college, rec-center, international – every good game and bad game – I wouldn’t change a thing in terms of my basketball career.

AD: For youngsters aspiring to play basketball or to achieve any other life goal, what advice would you give them?

JR: Enjoy the moment. Enjoy the moment and take it seriously. Understand that every decision you make affects the next thing that you do. When I left school, it affected me possibly not being drafted which led to me going overseas. And I’m grateful to have gone overseas and to have played in fifteen countries, learned so many things, played against so many people. I was able to accomplish so many things and see the world with a basketball which is something I never thought would happen.

But I didn’t understand the effects of decision making. You’re a kid and you think you’re invincible. You leave school, but you don’t understand how much of a domino effect it is, and how one decision affects everything that you do afterwards. It can alter everything in your life, so my advice to youngsters is to really understand the decisions that you’re making with everything you do in life.

AD: Yes, one injury, a violent crime – anything can change your future. I’m sure you saw ESPN’s 30 for 30 about Benji Wilson’s life. He was the No. 1 high school player in the United States in 1984, was on his way to being a college star and then a professional basketball player. And it was all taken away just like that over a stupid argument with two guys on the street he didn’t know, and who had nothing to lose themselves.

JR: When I was in high school I didn’t go out. When I was at Loyola, I didn’t go out to a club until maybe my junior year. I was afraid of losing my scholarship due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I went to dorm parties, but I didn’t want the club scene. I didn’t want it.

AD: Well Jason, thank you again, and I really appreciate your willingness to talk about your life and playing days. Whether you know it or not, you are royalty, at least as far as I’m concerned. What you guys did at Buffalo Traditional was big and in your successes, you touched a lot of lives – not just at Buffalo Traditional, but also for the rest of us at the other schools – seeing that those types of things could be done and giving everyone else something to shoot for. It was something for the entire area to be proud of – to say that you were there, and that you played against Jason Rowe, Damien Foster, and the Buffalo Traditional Bulls (click on the image below to enlarge it).

JR: You just said something very important, which was that we touched lives. At the time you don’t understand that, but that’s why I also said for the youngsters to be mindful of their every decision because you never know who is watching. That was something that I learned later on in my career – to be mindful, to be in the moment, and to appreciate each moment. There is nothing wrong with stepping outside, smelling the air and saying, ‘Thank you.’ Don’t get caught up in getting flashy rings, a Range Rover and all of those things, because all of that can be taken away from you.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership

If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part three: People, teamwork, mental toughness and leadership

This article is the continuation of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. Part three will discuss some of the valuable lessons I learned about people, teamwork, mental toughness, and leadership – all of which have implications for succeeding in any group mission and functioning on a team – key aspects in the workplace and in all relationships.

An important life lesson basketball taught me is that people come and go in and out of your life for any number of reasons. In workplaces, there are always going to be people who are unhappy, distraught and discouraged. They may feel that they’re not being used enough, used properly, or are just being overlooked – sometimes for someone who is favored by management. There are always people who feel passed over for promotions that they just knew that they were qualified for, or entitled to get.

In other instances they may feel that they aren’t being given the chance to succeed. This can lead to frustration and even quitting altogether. Once they’ve quit, they may even try to convince you to do the same, but if you’re content where you are, you have to stay and continue to press on in your current station. Malcontents can become cancers that poison their teams. This is something that goes for both platonic and romantic relationships as well.

Regarding teamwork, basketball taught me that the most talented team doesn’t always win, which is always fun to watch when it happens (but not to experience firsthand). When the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA Championship, they weren’t the more talented team. They were an assembly of interchangeable parts that no one else wanted. They were able to put their egos aside, played together unselfishly, and they bought into a common philosophy while the Lakers fought amongst themselves, and allowed their egos to divide them.

Oh, and speaking of selfishness and unselfishness, just as in basketball, it’s a lot more fun to play with unselfish players than it is to play with selfish players. The same goes for coworkers, friends and significant others. When you feel as though someone is willing to share, respects you, and has your best interests at heart, you tend to want to do more for them. When you’re working with someone whose only concern is their own self-interests, it makes for a difficult partnership.

Basketball taught me that whenever you’re setting out to do something of meaning and substance, you have to be mentally strong as you’ll have to endure criticism and doubt – often from people who are on the sidelines watching. Sometimes it’s because they aren’t doing anything themselves. Sometimes they wish they were doing what it is you’re doing. In some cases they wish they had the opportunity to do what you’re doing. Whate9ver the case, mental strength allows you to keep going through it all.

Basketball taught me that, being a part of a distinct and visible group (like the basketball team) will put a bullseye on your back, and people will ‘gun’ for you even if you haven’t done anything to them. Later in life you may become a: Doctor, a Lawyer, a Division Director, a Manager of some sort, the President of the United States, or even just someone with a lot of responsibility. Once you achieve that level, people will inevitably watch and scrutinize your moves and you have to be ready for that.

“The team, the team, the team,” legendary University of Michigan Head Football Coach Bo Schembechler stressed to his team in one of his most famous pre-game speeches. Schembechler was a wise Coach who came to realize that each player was different, and needed to be motivated differently. Basketball likewise taught me that for any team, whether it’s two people or ten, solid leadership is paramount for any long-term and continued success. Strong leadership can be the difference between members of a team coalescing and becoming their best selves, or falling apart into bits and pieces.

Lastly, not every leader leads the same way. That goes for: athletics, government, the corporate world or any other arena in life that requires teamwork. I didn’t understand this aspect of leadership as a teen on my high school basketball team. Then, a couple of years ago I watched ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary titled I Hate Christian Laettner – a story about Duke University’s most storied college basketball player, and arguably the best college basketball player of all time whom few people outside of the Duke fan base liked – his teammates included.

It turned out that Laettner was a bit of bully towards teammates – particularly Bobby Hurley, and Grant Hill who resented him at times. There was a method behind his madness though. It was his way of challenging them, making them tougher, and pulling out their best play. Sometimes leaders just want to see how driven and mentally strong you are, and how you’ll respond under pressure. Rising to the test ultimately creates a much, much stronger team.

This article will be continued in part four of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part two: Life lessons

This post is the continuation of the series titled the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. In part two, some of the important life lessons basketball taught me will be discussed. Some of these lessons will come from or be related back to author Charles J. Sykes’s book, 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School.

The biggest lesson basketball taught me is rule number one from Mr. Sykes’s book, “Life is not always fair. Get used to it.” The game taught me that even though you can spend hours upon hours dreaming and preparing for a goal of some sort, an unforeseen calamity can come along and snatch away that goal. For me that calamity was an injury, but in the real world it can be anything, and often times it isn’t fair.

Basketball taught me rule number four from Mr. Sykes’s book, “You are not entitled.” Putting in your time at a job or even your degree level does not guarantee you advancement in your career in every case. Coaches and supervisors are usually looking for the most talented person (s) and will usually show favor to that person at the expense of others, regardless of seniority. So it’s always important to put out your best and not expect things because you’ve been there for a while.

Basketball taught me that sometimes other people’s decisions can affect your life for better or for worse. Sometimes people don’t consider the consequences for everyone else when they make decisions and do certain things. Whether it’s a teammate, a relative, a coworker or even a significant other, sometimes decisions are made that adversely affect the team, and its times like that that you realize another difficult life lesson; there are some things in life that you have no control over, but you have to deal with the consequences somehow. This relates right back to the first life lesson.

Rule number ten from Mr. Sykes’s book states that, “Life is actually more like Dodgeball than your gym teacher thinks.” He goes on to state that, “It comes at you quickly; it requires alertness and skill; the outcome is unpredictable; the weak can sometimes overcome the strong; it involves elimination and has both winners and losers.”

Likewise and easily relatable to rule number 10, basketball taught me that not everyone plays fair and many people seek to gain any advantage they can whenever they can, especially when the referee is not looking. The same is true in the adult world. People have different concepts of what is fair and ethical and can surprise you when they do things to you that you wouldn’t do to them on the job and in relationships.

Lastly, basketball taught that hindsight is 20/20. Often when you are in the actual game or life situation, you make decisions and react based upon what you’re seeing and experiencing in that particular moment. However when the game is over, and you have a chance to look back at the film and what you might have done differently, everything looks so much more clear. It’s the exact same way in the game of life.

This article will be continued in part three of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy:

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction
Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup and State Tournaments
Chris Herren discusses his journey, drug addiction, substance abuse and wellness

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Jason Rowe discusses Buffalo Traditional Basketball, the Yale Cup, and State Tournaments

One of the key principles of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. A key pillar of creating them is hearing the stories and experiences of those who have made it to where we want to be. Like many kids, an early dream of mine was to play basketball. That dream didn’t reach fruition, but the lessons I learned playing in the Buffalo Public Schools’ ‘Yale Cup’ high school city basketball league laid the groundwork for me to go on to further my education and start my science career.

I’m actually working on a project chronicling my early journey, and as a part of the research for that project, I’ve interviewed numerous Yale Cup players from my era. On February 2, 2018, I had the honor of interviewing Jason Rowe – a Buffalo basketball legend who sits on the ‘Mount Rushmore’ of Yale Cup players with the likes of: Trevor Ruffin, Ritchie Campbell, Marcus Whitfield, Curtis Aiken, Ray Hall and Cliff Robinson. Jason spearheaded Buffalo Traditional High School’s ascension to the top of ‘Section VI’ basketball, leading his Bulls to the ‘Far West Regional’ each of his four years, and then to State Tournament in Glens Falls, his final two before winning it in his senior season. In part, one of this two-part interview, we discuss his background, and his storied playing days at the Buffalo Traditional High School.  The pictures in this interview come from an archive of Section VI basketball assembled over the years from issues of the Buffalo News by my first Coach at Hutch-Tech High School, Dr. Ken Jones.

Anwar Dunbar: Thank you for this opportunity to interview you, Jason. I’m working an ambitious writing project about my high school basketball experience. It was my first major success and failure life lesson. While I didn’t play organized basketball beyond the 1993-94 school year, my high school experience on our team at Hutch-Tech gave me the tools I needed to earn my Ph.D. in a STEM-field – not quitting during the hard times, dealing with adversity, finishing what I started, and so on.

In my project I also tell the story of the Yale Cup in that era, and you can’t properly tell it without discussing the Buffalo Traditional Bulls as you guys were the premiere program/team. As a part of my research, I’ve reached out to some of the other Yale Cup players to gain insight to what it was like playing at Bennett, City Honors, Kensington, Riverside, and others. But to talk to you is like talking to Jordan (laughing).

Jason Rowe: That’s a lot of pressure (laughing), but I’m happy to help out.

AD: Okay, so let’s start. As you know, the Buffalo News wrote extensively about you in the early to mid 1990s. They particularly talked about your father, Jerry, and your Uncle Lester being very influential in your development as a basketball player. At what age did you start playing basketball? Did they put a basketball in your crib as a baby?

JR: It’s funny you should say that because that’s literally the story I was told. When I came home as a baby, there was a basketball hoop on the wall in my crib and my father used to pick me up and have me dunk the basketball as a kid.

AD: Was your father a basketball player?

JR: Yes. He played locally, but he didn’t pursue it at a higher level. My uncle and I were the ones who were fortunate to go on to play in college, and to make some money from it.

AD: So you would describe your upbringing as being similar to that of a Stephon Marbury where basketball was literally in your family?

JR: Yes. All of the males in my family – myself, my uncle, my father, and James Rowe my cousin, who was an athlete at Lafayette High School. He played football, basketball, and I believe he ran track too. My brother, Jeremy, played football, basketball, and he ran cross country at Buffalo Traditional. My whole family was athletic.

AD: When you were playing middle school basketball, were you already in camps and clinics?

JR: I went to the University of West Virginia’s basketball camp as a kid. I went to the local camps at Canisius and the University at Buffalo. I was actually at Georgia Tech’s camp the moment Kenny Anderson got drafted into the National Basketball Association (NBA). As a kid I was a huge Kenny Anderson fan, and that’s why I wore number 12 in high school.

AD: Were there any other college and professional players that you looked up to?

JR: Jordan, Isiah and Magic were the guys that I idolized in the NBA. In college I looked up to Kenny Anderson, Jason Kidd and Chris Jackson. Locally, I looked up to my uncle, Trevor Ruffin, and Ritchie Campbell. I looked at them and felt like I could do something. They were guys I could watch every day in a ‘hands on’ type of way. Trevor grew up across the street from me and he was like a ‘big brother’. He played at the University of Hawaii and he went on to the NBA, but I didn’t look at him that way. This was the guy who, when he was in the NBA, would pick me up to go work out with him. We had that type of relationship where he was my big brother, and I was going in the house and watching TV with him.

AD: Were you familiar with some of the other Yale Cup and Section VI stars who came before you like Ritchie Campbell and Marcus Whitfield?

JR: I grew up watching those guys so I idolized Ritchie, Nigel Bostic, and Marcus Whitfield. I vaguely remember Ray Hall. My experience with him was in the summer leagues. But as far as the big name guys who were in the Yale Cup, I knew them because my cousin, James, was eight years older than me. So he grew up in that era and took me to those games because he played at Lafayette. I was able to get my experience watching those games as well.

AD: Did anyone in your circle talk about Christian Laettner?

JR: I heard stories about Laettner, but I wasn’t around him that much. I was at that infamous game between Nichols and South Park where the fight broke out, but I was too young to remember it.

AD: Being at Traditional for middle school, what made you decide to stay for high school? Is that just what the students did there?

JR: I wanted to have my own name. Traditional was home for me. They had some success leading up to that time and I knew everyone on their team. I wanted to be a part of that, so for me it didn’t make sense to go anywhere else.

AD: Yes, every year Coach Joe Cardinal’s teams were making deep runs in postseason play – a couple of times to the State Tournament. Did you and Damien Foster plan to attend Buffalo Traditional together, or was it a random decision?

JR: We grew up in the Masten ‘Boys Club’. The basketball circle is very small. We became friends and started playing there together. I want to say that he was going to go to McKinley first, but he decided to come to Traditional and it definitely worked out for everyone involved.

AD: For me, you guys came out of nowhere. I wasn’t in the ‘basketball circle’ you described, and I didn’t know who you guys were. Thus, the first time I saw you play was when you guys came to play us at Hutch-Tech in January 1993 and smacked us 96-73. It was right after Cameron Calvin died, and it coincided with the University of Michigan’s storied ‘Fab Five’. We had an all upperclassmen starting lineup and getting routed by you guys like that was a backbreaking loss for the players and our coach. I watched it all unfold on the bench due to an injury, and I even looked at the tape numerous times afterwards in awe. Play after play, you guys just made it look easy. Many freshmen are scared in Varsity competition, but you guys looked so fearless. What was your mentality as a freshman?

JR: It’s funny that you mentioned Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’. If you pull up the videos and pictures of us at Buffalo Traditional, we mimicked the Fab Five – the big shorts and the black socks. My mentality personally was to be the best ballplayer I could be. I grew up around Trevor Ruffin and my uncle so inside the home, the pressure to succeed was one of the things that drove me personally. I was fortunate enough to have that basketball success around me – my big brother was an NBA player, and my uncle was a legend who played Division 1 basketball and then overseas. So when you walked into that house you had to bring something to the table. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘I had 10 points today.’ You had to win convincingly and put up some numbers. As a team and as freshmen we were happy to compete and do well, but I don’t think we knew how good we would become and the success we would have. You’re 14 years old and you want to win, but you don’t really understand how far it can take you.

AD: I imagine you guys caught a lot of teams like that. Riverside won the Yale Cup the year before, and if I recall you all beat them. You had two seniors on that team, Andre Montgomery and Jeff Novarra, along with you younger guys. How did you guys blend it all together?

JR: I was in the school so I was familiar with Andre and Jeff already. They were instrumental in our success my freshman year. Jeff was our shooter, and Andre was like our ‘Draymond Green’ – he was undersized, but he could do a little bit of everything. They were very good leaders.

What also helped us was that a lot of us played together outside of Buffalo Traditional. We were always at the Boys Club – myself, Damien, Damone White, who unfortunately has passed away – we were always together playing. It’s kind of like we weren’t surprised because we knew how each other played and our mentality. No one else really knew. We knew how to compete, we just didn’t know we were going to knock off so many teams and make a name for ourselves. We just wanted to win.

AD: As you know, whenever you experience a high level of success, you’re going to have critics as well. I’m sure you guys heard similar chatter, but one of my teammates at Hutch-Tech once told me about how your Coach, Joe Cardinal, would just go into his office and read the newspaper while you guys played ‘pickup’ basketball during practice every day (laughing). What was the Traditional team like? Was it a thing where Coach Cardinal just put the ball in your hands and let you go or was there more to it?

JR: Coach Cardinal was very honest when he would say, ‘I’m a gym teacher, and I don’t know much about basketball in terms of coaching.’ Because he was so open and honest, and didn’t try to hide that, it actually made us closer. He wasn’t lying and trying to be something he wasn’t. He was the most personable coach I ever played for because he had our backs and we knew that. In terms of Xs and Os, no he wasn’t that knowledgeable so it’s no surprise that we didn’t learn certain things.

In tight situations, he would tell us to, ‘run a pick and roll,’ or something very basic – nothing complex. Fortunately for us, we were able to beat a lot of teams by a lot of points, so there weren’t a lot of tight games. When the games were tight I was able to use some of the things my father and uncle taught me.

AD: Were there any other coaches on that staff that made a difference?

JR: Ellis Woods, who was the coach’s best friend. They were cut from the same cloth, and were very open and honest with us about what they did and didn’t know. We would run through a brick wall for both Coach Cardinal and Coach Woods. They could relate to us.

AD: My junior season was cut short due to grades, an injury and not knowing how to deal with adversity, but I kept my eyes on what was happening in postseason play. I remember watching the news at night and seeing your team march all of the way to the Class C “Far West Regional”. You guys beat Starpoint, Newfane, Portville and then top-seeded John F. Kennedy 71-67 to win the Section VI Class C Championship as mostly freshman and sophomores. Some kids never made the sectionals at all, and the core of your team won yours as freshmen and sophomores. What was that ride like?

JR: Our goal was the win the State Championship. It was my personal goal and the team’s goal as well. When you have that goal, you get that ‘tunnel vision’. We used to say, ‘Get to Glen. Get to Glen. You’ve got to get to Glens Falls.’ That’s where the State Championship was held. For some time the Buffalo teams were having a hard time getting past the Rochester teams in the Far West Regional. We wanted to get past Rochester. For us, we had a lot of confidence because we played against the top notch competition in Buffalo. We were confident enough to get past Buffalo’s competition and we just had to beat the Rochester teams. It was step by step.

AD: It was the Marion team in your freshman year and the Mynderse team in your sophomore year you faced in the Far West Regional – were they bigger? Were they better?

JR: Everything. I think what we lacked is what they exploited. They had the structure we didn’t have. They were big and physical, and they just outworked us. I cried a lot after those two games. I shed a lot of tears. They were well deserved victories for them.

AD: Unfortunately, I didn’t go to that Mynderse game which was at UB’s Alumni Arena, but I did see the highlights and recognized one of the guys Damien Foster was jawing at after hitting a three-pointer. I played with some of those guys at the ‘Ken Jones Basketball Camp’ – my coach’s camp which a lot of Rochester area players attended. I imagine just seeing the clash of styles must have been amazing.

JR: You had this fast paced team versus this half court, slow it down type of team – two completely different styles of basketball.

AD: Yes, you guys were clearly more athletic and more talented. I imagine they were patiently working the ball on offense, and slowing the game down.

JR: They were physical. I remember them being very physical.

AD: So you guys beat Lyons in your junior year in the Far West Regional 74-71, you willed the Bulls to victory against Mechanicville in the state semifinals 81-72, before matching up against Elton Brand and Peekskill in final game. What was the key to beating Lyons? Had you guys just been there two years and you were ready?

JR: I would say that it was the pain of losing in the Far West Regional those first two years and not being able to get over the hump. We felt like it was our time and we wanted that victory more than anything else in the world. Lyons might have been No. 1 in the state that year too, and for a team that was easily motivated like us, we’d had enough.

AD: Your team went on to suffer a heartbreaking 94-85 loss to Peekskill in a public state final game, and then you graduated veterans Adrian Baugh, LaVar Frasier and Jimmy Birden who were featured in the Buffalo News during the playoffs that season. Was it hard to get back to the State Tournament the next year? Or did you and Damien just not miss a beat?

JR: It was hard in the sense that it’s just not easy getting there period. But in terms of remaining focused and knowing that the State Championship is what we wanted, the mental part wasn’t hard, but the physical part was hard. You have to play 20 games just to get to Glens Falls – that’s just getting there. The game by game process was hard, but the mental aspect wasn’t difficult. When we lost to Peekskill, I remember telling the Buffalo News before I walked off the court, ‘We’ll be back,’ and I meant that.

AD: I imagine all four years were fun, but was there one that stood out above the rest? Was it in your senior year when the team won the Class C State crown 62-48 over Mechanicville, and then the Class C Federation crown 92-71 over Collegiate of New York City?

JR: Yes, that was the year that we won. It was fun, but it was also bitter sweet, because I remember when we won a lot of us were crying tears of joy, but we also understood that it was over – our run was over and that it was our last game together. Our team was very, very close.

AD: As I mentioned earlier, you guys lost the three seniors from your junior year, but you still had a strong supporting cast which included guys like: Damone White, Darcel Williams, Jamar Corbett, and Darnell Beckham.

JR: To me Darcel was our ‘X-factor’. We had a good team. We had guys graduate in different years, but everyone stuck together during that time so we already had that bond and that chemistry. So by the time Adrian, LaVar and Jimmy graduated, the other guys were ready because they already had experienced playing in big games. That’s why, in my senior year, we were just running through teams. It was insane.

AD: You and Damien were talked about synonymously – Damien Foster and Jason Rowe, Jason Rowe and Damien Foster. What was Damien like? Did you guys have to talk about who was going to get the last shot? Who was going to get the majority of the shots? Was your chemistry just natural?

JR: I had two personal goals going into high school; I wanted to get 1,000 assists and I wanted to win the State Championship. So passing the ball – I didn’t have an issue with that, and fortunately for us, we blew so many teams out that it was never an issue regarding who got the last shot. There is no issue when you’re up 10, 20, or 30 points – we won so many games convincingly that we never argued about who was going to get the last shot. Again, I wanted the assist, so on fast breaks I’d throw the ball backwards to set up someone else.

AD: Talk a little bit about the Bennett game in your junior year – the 69-68 thriller where you guys lost to the Tigers. Periodically, I still see guys talking about it on Facebook. Did you overlook them?

JR: We didn’t overlook anyone. It’s hard to overlook teams when you go into their gyms and their teams have pep rallies. We knew every team was gunning for us. We knew that we were going to get everyone’s best shot so we came ready to play every single game. That night Bennett played well. It’s a great game and I actually watch it from time to time. It was a great game.

AD: Were there any other players that you especially look forward to playing?

JR: I liked playing against LaSalle’s Tim Winn, Burgard’s Jeremiah Wilkes, Cardinal O’Hara’s Ryan Cochran, and Turner/Carroll’s Malik Campbell. We were all friends. We would play against each other one day and be friends, and then completely hate each other on the court the next time. We were all very, very, very competitive. When you have competitors competing at that high level, it just makes for some great basketball.

AD: In your junior season, the Buffalo News also wrote a piece actually comparing you and Tim Winn as you two were the top two point guards in Western New York. If I recall, he actually hoped to team up with you in Empire State Games at one point. Did your two teams ever match up allowing you to go head to head – Buffalo Traditional vs. LaSalle?

JR: Tim was hurt when we were supposed to play. That was a game everyone was looking forward to, and he had sprained his ankle the week of the game in practice.

In the second part of our interview, Jason and I discuss his basketball career after being a Buffalo Traditional Bull. I want to thank Jason for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate. After completing this interview, I realized that there are other historical significances to what we discussed here, beyond the basketball court. Just as the city of Buffalo has changed since the early 1990s, so has its school system. Two schools that were a part of our Yale Cup of the early 1990s no longer exist. One is Kensington High School. The second is Buffalo Traditional High School where Jason played. While the building still sits there on East Ferry Street, it is now the home for the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts.

Thank you for taking the time to read this interview. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly, follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Lasting lessons basketball taught me part one: An introduction

The first principle of my blog is “Creating Ecosystems of Success”. I originally published this series on the Examiner back in 2014, and with ‘March Madness’ upon us yet again I’ve decided to republish it. As a teen I had dreams of being a basketball player just like a lot of kids – a dream one must have lots of ability, drive, and luck to achieve. I didn’t play basketball beyond high school, but the lessons I learned on my high school team – not all of them happy and pleasant, helped me as I progressed into adulthood and into my Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) career. I’m actually working on an ambitious writing project chronicling that journey. The themes of that project are captured in this four-part series.

* * *

Dr. Ken Jones my high school basketball coach was a true student and scholar of the game. In addition to teaching us as much as he could about the fundamentals of basketball, he was also interested in the psychology of sports and wanted to teach life skills to his players. He frequently told us, “As much as I want you guys to become good basketball players, I also want you to become good people.”

Right around the time of tryouts one year, he gave all of us an article from USA Today titled; The joy of victory is why sports exist, by Jeff Riggenbach. While the author argued that the main reason for competition is the thrill of victory, he also stated, “One of the principal reasons we like to see kids get into sports in the first place is what they can learn from the experience right?”

Important lessons they learn include:

• How to set a goal and work toward it
• How to coordinate their own efforts with those of their teammates
• How to achieve and maintain the flexibility to respond to the ever-changing moment
• Making quick alterations in plans, strategies and tactics

He continues, “These are lessons that would benefit anyone, not only on the playing field or court, but also in business, politics and every other sphere of human life. To learn these lessons, you don’t need to win, necessarily. But you do need to want to win, and you do need to try with all of your might to win.”

Though unable to play even pickup basketball these days for medical reasons, the game is still frequently on my mind; the Xs and Os, the strategies, and the longing for that feeling of competition. Most importantly the many lessons the game taught me about life are always fresh on my mind. With March Madness upon us, this next series will discuss the lasting lessons basketball taught me about life, people and success, and how those lessons have translated into the adult world.

Some of the best memories of my life were my years on my high school basketball team at Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY. Similar to some of my teammates at that time, it was an experience that didn’t go exactly as planned. Even though it had its share of heartbreaks, it was also a molding experience for me and those experiences have continued to play out throughout my life well after high school.

The players and arenas have changed with every new experience, but the themes and lessons have translated into adulthood. Learning about dribbling, hook shots, and proper defensive techniques were fun, but basketball taught me so much more. It taught me about the most important game of all, the game of life.

Even for young people who don’t go on to play big time college sports, participating in high school interscholastic athletics can be a very rewarding experience which can impart important life lessons. Most of these lessons will translate into the adult world, the workforce and interpersonal relationships. This series will therefore be a reflection on the lessons basketball taught me and how they’ve translated into my life, my career and my many relationships with people along the way. The lessons will be broken up into the following categories:

• Life lessons
• People, Teamwork and Leadership
• Success in life

Many of these lessons are universal and could be gleaned for example from the documentary Hoop Dreams, a very moving film for me which tracked the high school basketball careers of Arthur Agee and William Gates in the early 1990s. Though their basketball careers were much more successful than my own, their experiences, trials and tribulations were similar in many ways to my own.

This series will be continued in part two of the Lasting lessons basketball taught me. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you’ve found value here and think it will benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

 

Perspectives of federal workers caught in the middle of the 2013 government shutdown revisited

The following piece was originally published on the Examiner back in October of 2013 during my very first government shutdown as a federal employee. It was followed by another piece which I also recently republished titled The myth of the stability of being a government employee revisited. Five years later after our most recent three-day government shutdown, and with another potential one on the way, I thought it would be appropriate to republish it.

The reality is that regardless of one’s position on something like the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), there are many, many government employees who have bills to pay and can’t afford the uncertainty of having a prolonged break in their income. This piece captured some of the rumblings of those around me leading up to, and during the time we were sent home for two weeks. It turned out to be a paid vacation as we were reimbursed for those two weeks, and ‘Obamacare’ was eventually signed into law – at least for the time being.

* * *

By the time this article goes up, the 2013 government shutdown may be over, or it may still be in effect. No one knows except our elected officials. In the meantime, when writing up the piece about The myth of the stability of being a government employee, the idea recently came to me to capture some of the reactions and sentiments of friends and colleagues in the federal government before and during the shutdown. The following are samples of quotes and reactions to the shutdown from people in my circle.

“All we can tell you is to watch the news. We don’t know when this will be over,” our supervisors and managers told us leading up the shutdown and then on the day we when we went through our shutdown protocols. We all knew that the government shutdown might be coming months in advance so all of this wasn’t a big surprise, though leaving my workplace that last time not knowing when I would return was a sobering feeling.

“We got reimbursed back in 1995 after the Clinton-Gingrich shutdown, but it’s not guaranteed that we’ll get it this time. It’s actually not looking good,” a seasoned coworker said days before the shutdown with a look of fear on his face from potentially losing the pay. It was with good reason too as our bills would continue rolling in even as our paychecks froze.

Immediately after the shutdown went into effect, many federal employees took it hard. While many were worried about the financial pinch, many workers actually found fulfillment in their work, and were upset that they couldn’t work simply because of lack of agreement by our elected officials. Some even became skeptical about continuing to work for the federal government.

“This sucks,” a coworker text-messaged me the morning of Oct. 2, the day immediately after the start of the shutdown. In later messages over the course of the shutdown, his frustrations continued saying, “I’m going to keep my options open employment-wise. It’s just going to get more difficult in the government – more work, lower pay (furloughs), no promotions, on top of the usual politics.”

“When my federal job got shutdown, I knew that I was just go and spend time at my other jobs,” a friend who has his hand in a number of community service and other projects outside of work peacefully stated. While many federal workers were crushed about not being able to go to work, others saw it as opportunity to invest their time in other projects.

“We might get shutdown, but we’ll be back to work eventually. In the meantime, those who have savings will be okay, and those who don’t will scramble to find the money to buy a bag of potato chips. It’ll be okay.” Prior to the start of the government shutdown, some colleagues weren’t worried about it at all. An unconcerned seasoned coworker who was savvy about money and investing smiled and told talked with me about the shutdown in a very carefree way.

Some retired federal employees looked at the current situation with fond memories of previous shutdowns, and made observations about the spending habits of and mentalities of the younger generations of federal employees.

“We never worried about the government shutdowns. We just relaxed and enjoyed the time off,” a retired federal employee laughingly said at an alumni association executive board meeting I’m involved with. “We were a different generation though. We had money saved up and could thus survive. People in the younger generations don’t live like we did and are in real trouble right now. They’re going paycheck to paycheck.”

“I’m filing for unemployment,” a disgusted coworker said walking from the printer the day of the shutdown, when we had to go into the office and officially close down our work stations. He continued, “The director just sent this certificate to all of us. I recommend you print it off and do the same thing.”

About a week later, my unemployment papers were put in the mail as well. Other federal employees congregated around the city to take advantage of the free specials offered by local restaurants.   We all watched the news everyday wondering when our elected officials would make some sort of agreement and reopen the federal government.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. In you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me at the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

The myth of the stability of being a government employee revisited

“For those of us who are in the military, contractors and government employees living paycheck to paycheck yet who are still Democrats, to be honest, we NEEDED them to cave. Republicans don’t want the big gov’t anyway. They don’t care if it fails. We need our jobs.”

The following piece was originally published on the Examiner back in October of 2013 during my very first government shutdown early in my federal career. Five years later after our most recent three-day government shutdown, and with another one potentially on the way, I thought it would be appropriate to republish this. The opening quote is from a thread on Twitter. Someone took a verbal shot at Senator Chuck Schumer for caving in and ending the shutdown after only three days, and a federal employee responded saying that she needed Schumer and the Democrats to surrender. The reality is that regardless of one’s position on something like the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), there are many, many government employees who have bills to pay and can’t afford the uncertainty of having a prolonged break in their income. When government shutdowns occur, we see that there are instances when federal careers are not as stable as we believe them to be.

* * *

Recently many of my articles have focused on financial literacy. One of the key components of financial literacy is the knowledge of how to generate income whether it be through working a job, entrepreneurship, or wise investment of money already earned. With the government shutdown taking place, quite a few federal employees have been forced to ponder one of the key considerations of working a job; security.

“When we were in college, the government was thought to be the place to be in terms of employment. A lot of people wanted to get in,” a close friend who is also a federal employee and a mother of two with a third on the way said when recently over lunch. “Now things are really different and there is so much uncertainty. People are rethinking whether or not they want to go in or even stay in the government.”

In a booming economy with plentiful tax revenues, a robust Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and when our elected officials are getting along, yes being a federal employee can be a good way to go, so much so that some would say that government employees are treated too well. Prior to 2008, it was thought to be stable employment and federal employees were thought to be relatively safe from the ups and downs of our nation’s economy. On a side note, it has also been said that it’s hard to fire federal employees, and that there are some in our ranks who have lost their desire to produce and are getting paid to do nothing. In that regard maybe some federal employees are treated too well.

When the country is in a recession and our elected officials can’t agree on how to best fund the government, or even to fund it at all, being a federal employee can look a lot less attractive. It is then that you (as have many) realize that you are still at the mercy of someone else; in this case our politicians who interestingly continue to get paid no matter what.
My tenure as a federal employee started in 2008 at the end of George W. Bush’s second term just as the current economic downturn ramped up (the Great Recession).

Though having a steady income while other sectors of the economy were disintegrating around us, federal employees have experienced/ endured:

• A freeze of our annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA);
• The uncertainty of ‘Continuing Resolutions’ instead having concrete budgets;
• The 2011 standoff over the raising of the ‘Debt Ceiling’ and the ‘Fiscal Cliff’;
• The 2013 summer ‘Sequestration’ leading to furloughs and;
• Now the 2013 shutdown over ‘Obamacare’ and a potential second showdown over the raising of the Debt Ceiling compliments of the Tea Party.

This series of unfortunate events has shown that federal employees are just as vulnerable to the same economic calamities as everyone else when perfect storms like the one that we’re currently in sets in. It has shown that federal employees are at the mercy of quarreling elected officials. These events have in fact shown that whether you’re employed by the private sector, the government, or an entrepreneur, everyone is vulnerable to something. Lastly though it hasn’t taken place during my tenure, there is also something call a Reduction in Force (RIF) in the government where the size of the workforce needs to be reduced, and federal employees are retained or let go based upon seniority and experience.

No matter what sector of employment or business you’re in, it is once again important to not live ‘paycheck to paycheck’ if you can help it, and to have some money saved up for unforeseen hardships such as this 2013 government shutdown. In his Financial Peace University course, Dave Ramsey calls that having an ‘Emergency Fund‘, or a ‘GOK’ (God Only Knows) fund.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. In you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:

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If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site. Lastly follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, on Twitter at @BWArePowerful, and on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.