On the first day of practice last week for the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team in Las Vegas, the head coach, Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski, decided to inspire the players with a video and a song.
As LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Carmelo and the rest of the team practiced, he played the tape of Marvin Gaye's otherworldly performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.
"Instead of having a fight song or whatever," Coach K said, "that's our song."
Forty years ago, before a World Series game in Detroit, the blind Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Jose Feliciano sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and became the first artist to improvise on the national anthem, performing it with soulful and aching emotion. Feliciano sang the song as tribute and gratitude to a nation that had given him the opportunities to become a star. But his performance earned him outrage across the country from those who believed the anthem should only be performed in the conventional way. Over the years, Feliciano has said he believes his career was hurt by the controversy.
Gaye's stylization of the song, had he done it in 1968, would have earned him the same outrage, but by 1983 his version of the anthem, infused with a Caribbean rhythm that transformed it into a sensual hymn, a love song to America, had the fans and the players at that game clapping with joy.
Krzyzewski's reason for playing it for his 2008 Olympians was simple.
"Today I wanted them to envision the gold medal game," news reports quote him as saying. "It's Aug. 24, and they're out on the court, and I get chills thinking about it right now. Our anthem will be played, and if we do what we're supposed to do, they'll get that vision of being on that gold medal stand and again our national anthem will be played, and one of the greatest renditions of it was Marvin Gaye's."
Feliciano sang the anthem of the nation he loves in the way he could best express his feelings. Gaye sang the anthem of the nation he loves in the way he could best express his feelings. Whitney Houston did the same thing before the 1991 Super Bowl, and thousands of singers do the same thing every day and evening before games and events.
"I, too, sing America" is the first line of Langston Hughes' poem, "I, Too," a poem about inclusion, a poem about the many voices singing across America, voices for which there is no conventional style.
The voices that ring out across the land have accents, lilts, brogues and inflections, and carry with them the melodies of regions and the shadings of culture and heritage.
"That's not American," someone will say about something, or "We're all Americans," someone else will say in response to something else. But America isn't America in a vacuum. This magnificent ocean that is America has been fed and nurtured for hundreds of years by the rivers of the world that have flowed into it.
The Fourth of July is about the many different voices that make up the democratic chorus of America, voices that interpret the country's history through their own experiences. This is a nation that has the ability to move to the different rhythms that dance in its collective DNA.
Our voices don't always have to be in harmony, but few things are as discordant and shrill as when some voices declare that other voices not be heard or question the character, indeed the very American-ness, of voices they disagree or are uncomfortable with.
These are the voices that need to be reminded especially on the Fourth of July that the two great American songbooks are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and that they give us the freedom and creative license to remain united in our humanity and values yet diverse in our cultural styles, interests and political opinions.For Feliciano and Gaye and Houston and all of the children and adults who will give voice to the national anthem in the style that best speaks for them; for Coach K and the Olympians; for each of us living our lives, thinking our thoughts, speaking our words, trying to be the best that we can, the last four words of Hughes' poem explains us all: "I, too, am America."
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