Tuesday, August 26, 2014

It's summer vacation time ... see you in a week!


In Shakespeare Garden / Enjoying a quiet evening's walk alone with nature
and the Bard in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park 

It's late summer, a time of the year when many of us here in the U.S. take a week's vacation to rest, relax, rejuvenate and enjoy a break from routine.

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, I've decided to take the week off from my blog and enjoy a walk in the park, both literally and figuratively.

See you in a week with some thoughts about Modernism from the National Gallery of Art, an exhibition whose sole venue is the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Editor's note: Vacation travel can do wonders to one's body, mind and spirit. I enjoyed it so much I decided to take an extra week off from my blog. It will return on Tuesday, Sept. 9. Cheers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Jason Collins: Comfortable in his own identity and skin


Jason Collins in conversation at the Commonwealth Club /
"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out
for all of the of the gay athletes out there."

At 7-feet tall, Jason Collins easily stands out in a crowded room not only for his height but also for his skin color. Yet, it's his personality and intellect that draws your attention toward him.

Last year, Collins became the first openly gay active male athlete in major American professional sports when he came out in a highly publicized personal essay published in the May 6, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.

"Depending on the situation," Collins laughs, "I'm not always the gay one. Sometimes, I'm just the tall one, or the black one. When I turn heads, is it because people know I'm gay, or is it because I'm a seven-foot-tall African-American man?"

Last week, speaking in front of an audience of nearly 600 young professionals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco for the Commonwealth Club's InForumSF conversation series, Collins shared the stage with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and spoke candidly for 75 minutes about his journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement, and how coming out of the closet in a machismo professional sport powered by super stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant has changed his life.

"I just spoke to a group of NBA rookies and I had to explain what LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) stood for." While some in the audience snickered at the ignorance of it all, it prompted Collins to speak up: "It's all about education and exposure. Some guys have had no education and exposure to the LGBT community."

After he came out in April 2013, Collins waited patiently for a phone call from an NBA team who was willing to take a chance on the 255-pound veteran center -- a consummate professional and veteran of six pro teams who's appeared in two NBA finals, and who just happened to be gay. Certainly, there was bound to be one team willing to take a chance on the free agent. Finally, the Brooklyn Nets contacted Collins last February and signed him to a contract for the back end of the 2013-14 season, where he averaged 1.1 points and 0.9 rebounds.

For much of his pro basketball career, Collins has worn number 34, the same number he wore in college. However, after being traded to Boston and later Washington, then signing with Brooklyn, he chose a different number. "I needed a jersey number to go with my new identity," Collins said. "I went with 98 for the year 1998: the year Matthew Shepard died and the year the Trevor Project was founded."

Despite the personal fulfillment he's achieved, Collins believes there's still a stigma of homophobia in the NBA. "I used to hear that kind of talk a lot in the locker room," he said. "Since I came out, I don't hear it at all. Of course, that might have something to do with it being a $25,000 fine now. I tell guys, you don't have to be politically correct -- you just have to find more creative ways of cutting each other down."

Collins says matter-of-factly, at least one unnamed player trash-talked him during a game after he came out. "Yeah, he's a knucklehead. My attitude about that is: I'm going to foul you. Hard."

While some have labeled the Stanford University graduate as the "big brother San Francisco never had," the polite and affable Collins admits that at times he still feels like the new kid in school, still getting comfortable with his new identity and celebrity. He credits a gay uncle for being his personal role model and said that he's garnered moral support from fellow Stanford alums like U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, who was his college roommate, and from Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was his classmate. He also gives props to prominent gay athletes like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King for being trailblazers as well as sharing their wisdom and advice with him.

Although he can laugh about it now, Collins confessed to the audience: "I didn't kiss a man until I was 34-years-old." On dating for the first time, he said: "Having my heart broken, something that most people go through for the first time in high school, didn't happen to me until I was 34. There was a lot of accelerated learning curve going on there. The Stanford student in me wants to say: 'Okay, we're going to master this.'"

Before he came out publicly, Collins had been in an eight-year relationship with fellow Stanford alumnus and former WNBA center Carolyn Moos. The two were engaged to be married, but Collins called off the wedding in 2009.

Looking back, Collins said coming out to his family was a positive experience filled with love and respect. He recalled his first conversation about being gay with somebody outside of his family circle happened when he told his long-time agent Arn Tellem. "I called my agent. Now, normally, when a player calls an agent after a trade, it's to fire him. But I said 'I've got something to tell you: I'm gay.' He said, 'Well, Jason, you can still play.'"

While there's still a competitive fire in him, Collins told the audience he's undecided about whether to play another season in the NBA. With a lucrative, multi-million dollar endorsement from Nike, Collins realizes he can be as much a positive impact off the court as on it by speaking out on issues like equality and education as well as sustainability and health and fitness. He has a positive story that's worth sharing with others.

"Now that I have this voice and platform, I want to speak out for all of the gay athletes out there," Collins said. Seemingly comfortable in his own identity and skin, Collins is reaching equality both on and off the court by becoming an ambassador for acceptance and peace. In April, Collins was featured on the cover of Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World."

Reflecting on his life as a professional basketball player, Collins said: "Thirteen years is a long career for an athlete. "I used to be able to jump and touch the top of the white square behind the hoop with ease. As the years go by, you watch your hand go lower and lower on that square. Father Time is undefeated against us all.

"I'm really grateful for my Stanford degree now. On the other hand, I can still dunk."

Editor's note: On November 19, Jason Collins announced his retirement from professional basketball after 13 seasons in the NBA.

Photograph of Jason Collins at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco's Castro Theatre by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A tremendous challenge, a tremendous responsibility


Becky Hammon / "There have been so many other women that are doing
really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

Last week, the San Antonio Spurs showed why they're trailblazers in American professional basketball by announcing they've hired six-time WNBA All-Star point guard Becky Hammon as the first full-time, paid female assistant on an NBA coaching staff.

The reigning champion Spurs have been innovative, outside-the-box leaders in bringing in internationally-talented players for the past two decades -- France's Tony Parker, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Australia's Patty Mills come to mind -- and, earlier this summer, hired European coach Ettore Messina to join head coach Gregg Popovich's staff. So, it was not surprising that fresh off winning their fifth NBA championship, the Spurs would add to their history of forward-thinking moves by hiring Hammon. 

Becky Hammon / She's a trailblazer on court.
Now, she's a joining the San Antonio Spurs as 

the NBA's first full-time female assistant coach.
At age 37, the 5-foot-6 Hammon is retiring this month from a 16-season playing career in the WNBA in which she ranks fourth in career assists and seventh in points scored. The South Dakota native starred collegiately at Colorado State where she was a three-time All-American point guard, then became a naturalized Russian citizen in 2008 and represented the Russian national team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. She becomes the second woman to serve on an NBA coaching staff -- the first was Lisa Boyer, who was a part-time, non-paid member of the Cleveland Cavaliers staff in the 2001-02 season -- but the first who has been hired to a full-time, paid position.

"It's a tremendous challenge, and it comes with tremendous responsibility," said Hammon. "There have been so many other women that are doing really, really great things, and I'm just kind of following in their paths."

During the 2013-14 season, not only did Hammon attend Spurs practices, coaching meetings and film-review sessions, she also sat behind the bench for the NBA champions during home games while coming off a knee injury.

"I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff," said Poppovich. "Having observed her working with our team this past season, I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Hammon said it was made clear to her by Poppovich that her hiring was strictly related to her qualifications in basketball. "He says, 'It just so happens you're a woman,'" said Hammon during a press conference.

In an interview with Jeré Longman of The New York Times, Hammon "called her role as a pioneer 'a tremendous honor.' But, she added of Popovich: 'Honestly, I don't think he gives two cents that I'm a woman. And I don't want to be hired because I'm a woman.' The important point, Hammon said, was 'I'm getting hired because I'm capable.'"

Another basketball trialblazer, Nancy Lieberman, who is the assistant general manager of the Texas Legends, the NBA Development League affiliate of the Dallas Mavericks, told The New York Times that Hammon's hiring "was a crucial step for the NBA and for women.

"First and foremost, this means respect," said Lieberman. "She did not get hired just because she is a woman. She was hired because she was qualified, because they know her personality, how she interacts with players, how she understands X's and O's."

"I think it's no surprise to anybody that they think a little bit different down here," said Hammon of the Spurs. Indeed, and as espnW columnist Kate Fagan wrote: "A very high, very thick glass wall cracked.

"Realistically, the league had no model in place for hiring a female coach; a team neded to be the first, to prove it could work. And it makes sense that San Antonio, the reigning NBA champs, a franchise that has always marched very effectively to the beat of its own drum, has stepped forward and done just that."

Other media reaction has largely been positive. San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion wrote: "The Spurs are an organization that doesn't need fake publicity or splashy headlines. Hammon wasn't hired for looks or her Nike endorsement or her name; name many people outside hard-core WNBA fans and former Colorado State fans even know who she is.

"She was hired by the best head coach in the league. Gregg Popovich is a man who doesn't suffer fools, media, phoniness or distractions gladly. He hired Hammon because he thought she would do a good job. Period."

Killion's colleague at the San Francisco Chronicle, NBA columnist Bruce Jenkins, said of Hammon: "She could not be more ready to become the first female assistant on an NBA bench."

In his New York Times story, Longman noted that around the NBA, Hammon's hiring "has been met with wide congratulations. 'Very bright basketball mind,' Kobe Bryant posted on Twitter."

Even President Obama took time out to congratulate Hammon. The White House tweeted: "Congrats to @BeckyHammon, @NBA's first full-time female coach. When #WomenSucceed, America succeeds -- and we know the @Spurs will, too. -bo"

While naysayers might think of the Spurs hiring of Hammon as a publicity stunt, I don't. It's obvious that her hiring came after extensive research and interviews, and that the rest of the Spurs' staff would be amenable to what Jenkins labeled as Popovich's "brave new world."

Hopefully, Hammon's hire will open doors for other female coaches and prove there shouldn't be gender barriers anywhere. Kudos to the San Antonio Spurs. After all, they're a team that's ahead of the NBA in a league that's ahead of the game when it comes to racial and gender inclusiveness.

Photos: Courtesy of NBA.com and WNBA.com.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Studying our dining habits through a photographer's lens


Dinner in New York, 2014 / A mother and her baby daughter share dinner together in their
Upper West Side home while visiting via Skype with grandmother in Boston.

Eating dinner today involves a lot of multitasking and, increasingly, a lot of media consumption. It didn't always used to be this way.

Once upon a time, the family dinner was a chance for parents and kids to enjoy socializing with each other on any number of topics from school activities to presidential politics. Not so much anymore as dining has shifted from a primary to a secondary activity in our short-attention span-but-hurried lives. Now, it's not uncommon in many dining rooms for a TV set to be on that's airing a favorite program or, maybe, the stereo is playing ambient mood music -- even a radio might be tuned into a baseball game. Of course, for some, TV sets and radios are so old school when an iPad or iPhone are much more portable.

"The spread of the Internet, computers and cellphones in recent years has given people many methods of communication, and dinner has lost its original essence," says New York-based photojournalist Miho Aikawa, who more than four years ago decided to explore the subject of modern dinner by photographing people eating in New York City, focusing primarily on "private dinner moments."

"The changes in society, as well as the people who form them, have led to a shift in how we spend our dinner time," adds Aikawa, who has also studied people eating in Tokyo, too.

I came across Aikawa's excellent series of photographs entitled "Dinner in NY," via a recent feature about her work in Slate.com while (what else?) eating -- lunch not dinner -- and, it got me thinking about how multitasking and media consumption affect how I dine.

Let's see, eating breakfast offers me a chance to listen to NPR's "Morning Edition" on the radio while reading the print edition of The New York Times. At lunch, I alternate between glancing at my news feed on Facebook or perusing The San Francisco Chronicle e-edition on my MacBook Pro. As for dinner, well ... I'm guilty as charged about having the TV set on to watch a sporting event on ESPN or, maybe, "Chopped" on the Food Network, while I nosh on homemade pizza served with a butter lettuce salad, a bowl of fresh-cut Tomatero strawberries and a glass of Kermit Lynch French red wine.

Mind you, my wife and I still use our dinner time to enjoy stimulating conversation about a wide range of topics that include: sports, literature, food, music, travel and gardening. We like to keep it light. Nothing too heavy, although sometimes we might watch The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC whilst we dine. The other night, for something entirely different, we viewed an episode of Jerry's Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee that featured Jon Stewart online with our laptop occupying the corner of the dining room table. Seinfeld's online comedy show was welcome company at our dinner table.

"Initially, I had hoped to use this project as a means to provide inspiration and a chance to reflect on the reality and the potential of what dinner is, and can be," Aikawa wrote on her Facebook page. "Of course, there can be many different types of dinner, and the project is not about changing any one's dinner habits. I don't think having dinner with a cell phone, or laptop is bad or wrong. One of my subjects was talking with her grandmother via Skype during her dinner, and it can enhance the pleasure of the table."

Note: Aikwa's series, "Dinner in NY" is on display in this year's edition of The Fence at Brooklyn Bridge Park through October.

Photo  © 2014 by Miho Aikawa Photography.