Twenty-five years ago this week, one of the great albums of all time was released; Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, introducing the world to the Wu-Tang Clan.
I was a freshman in college and a devoted hip-hop head when it dropped, but I had never heard anything like Wu-Tang before. There had never been a group with this many members who all touched the mic. The production was dark and haunting, but at the same time there were the messages of strength, resilience, survival, and success mixed in with the tales of violence and despair that came from their collective experiences coming of age on Staten Island in New York.
They changed the game.
Each member (RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon da Chef, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and Masta Killa) had their own style and perspective. Though some were heard more, there was no member truly greater than another within the collective.
Ultimately, that’s the aspiration of every team at each level of athletic competition. There are stars and there are role players, but none of it works without playing as a team.
What does any of this have to do with the New Orleans Pelicans?
Starting in the preseason, Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday has been wearing a bandana beneath his bouncing braids each game. The look has drawn comparisons to that of a ninja, Rambo, and the Karate Kid.
None of those seemed right to me.
Something more appropriate was out there, waiting to capture the imagination of a fan base fully prepared to embrace its second superstar and to help bring attention to one of the most under appreciated talents in the NBA today.
The sounds that emanated from the 36 Chambers were still fresh in my ears as I walked into the Smoothie King Center last Saturday evening. During an otherwise forgettable 119-99 rout of the Phoenix Suns, it started to come together. I heard the slow build in my mind as Holiday turned in another sterling performance.
“Jrue-Tang. Jrue-Tang. Jrue-Tang.”
Holiday filled the stat sheet with 19 points, nine assists, six rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot. He harrassed Suns guard Devin Booker all night, holding him to 12 points points on 4/12 shooting, his worst scoring performance of the season.
That is no longer a shock to those who’ve watched him the last two seasons. In the aftermath of his destruction, I had to give in to the voice in my head…
Jrue-Tang Clan ain’t nuthin’ to f@?! wit. pic.twitter.com/pZHspUhcyd— David M. Grubb (@DMGrubb) November 11, 2018
It felt right. It felt true.
Watching Jrue play on a nightly basis, it became apparent just how during any given game Holiday brings to the basketball court the same strengths that each member of the Wu brought to the recording studio.
For the uninitiated, please allow me to break it down.
The RZA - The orchestrator. The creator of the sound. While the Clan is a brotherhood, the tone is set by RZA’s beats. They allow the rest of the group to shine. It was his responsibility to select which voices were heard on which track, which meant he needed to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each member. His voice was often in the background, but when it was time to step to the forefront the RZA could bring the ruckus.
While Alvin Gentry stresses a motion-based offense, Jrue is clearly the head of the Pelicans’ attack. Without many true ball-handlers on the roster, Holiday’s decision-making abilities are essential to the success of the offense. This season, he’s averaging a career-high 8.8 assists, including 9.7 over his last seven games. As a scorer, he’s had to fall in behind Anthony Davis, Niko Mirotic, and Julius Randle, but don’t get it twisted, Jrue can get buckets as evidenced by his four games of 20 points or more.
The GZA/Genius - The scientist. The oldest member of the group, GZA’s flow and style were complex, and at times, required multiple listens to appreciate every reference or thought presented. Before there was a Wu-Tang Clan, the GZA had already signed a record deal. While many in the group were novices, GZA was the veteran.
Holiday is the longest-tenured player on the Pelicans with nine NBA seasons under his belt. He arrived in New Orleans as the only player on the roster with an All-Star appearance and was among the few who had seen the postseason. At 28 years of age he is both a player in his prime and the team’s elder statesman. Watching his game today is an exercise in paying attention to detail. The subtleties of his defense, from his positioning to his anticipation; or plays like his pass to himself against the Suns show that Jrue is a step ahead.
The Ol’ Dirty Bastard - The man of his own style, there is is no way to explain or compare his flow, thus it had no father. Coming out of nowhere, he could provide something spectacular. He was a total wildcard.
Jrue is already becoming somewhat of a fashion icon for his many changing hair styles and head wear, and like the ODB, Holiday can deliver an amazing highlight at the most unexpected times. We’ve seen him explode to the rim for a thunderous dunk or cross up some poor unsuspecting defender before splashing a mid-range jumper. And each time, you cant help but to say, “What the fuck was that?”
U-God - The man known as “Golden Arms,” he was the sound of the enforcer. His voice was deep and confident, and his opening to “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” remains dope.
Jrue is the Pelicans’ defensive enforcer. Having him assigned to you must be every perimeter scorer’s nightmare, but it our pleasure to get watch Holiday use his golden arms to frustrate the NBA’s best night after night.
Inspectah Deck - The silent assassin. One of the best, lyric for lyric, in the clan, Inspectah Deck rarely drew attention to himself. His demeanor and delivery were deliberate. Criminally underrated, Deck was ready to bring it on every verse.
Have you ever tried to interview Jrue Holiday? Getting him to talk about himself is no easy task. Jrue maintains a low profile outside of the game, but once he steps onto the court, he is not to be underestimated. He will give you every minute you ask of him for 48 minutes, but barely utter a word once the game is over. That profile has kept most casual fans from understanding just how good he is. If Holiday isn’t an All-Star this season, it’ll be a crime.
Raekown da Chef - At five-feet, five-inches tall, Raekown was the smallest member of Wu-Tang Clan, but his bite was the hardest. Rae fought from the bottom to get to the top and he was here to let you know it, and make you understand that he wasn’t giving it up. Raekwon attacked every verse without mercy.
The 6-4, 205 pound Holiday is small in comparison to Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle, but he has come up the biggest so far this season for the Pelicans. He’s also the only member of the quartet to have both played in and started in all 12 games. He’s overcome injuries, the doubts of both the fans and the media (myself included), to take his place among the best in the game. His play has given no indication that Jrue intends to take a step backward anytime soon. He has arrived, but he’s performing like he still has plenty to prove. You can’t knock his hustle.
Ghostface Killah - The swagger. Ghostface Killah created these larger than life stories with a flow that sounded like he was almost yelling at times. He wore the biggest chains, rocked the largest jewelry, and eventually took on the persona of “Tony Starks,” his fur-coat and golden eagle cuff-wearing alter ego. Ghostface lived and spoke large.
No disrespect to AD, but nobody on the Pelicans plays with more swagger than Jrue Holiday. Yeah, it was Davis who dunked all over Portland’s Yusef Nurkic, but it was Holiday’s finger point that made the play the stuff of legend. Him flashing a quick, knowing smile when he makes a particulary great move on offense or play on defense is that of confidence bordering on arrogance. And yes, I am here for it.
The disrespect here Jrue Holiday POINTS AT NURKIC. STOP THIS GAME. pic.twitter.com/9Px4A0zluU— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) April 20, 2018
Method Man - Whatever you needed, the Method Man could provide. You needed a club song, he could do that. If you wanted to get grimy, Meth was right there in the dirt. He got the most play on that album because no matter the beat or the concept he was able to deliver.
What doesn’t Jrue Holiday do for the New Orleans Pelicans? He scores, he defends, he passes, he rebounds, and he shows up every night to do it again. Whatever the team needs at the moment, Holiday has proven he’s capable of providing.
Masta Killa - He performs on only one track on 36 Chambers, but you notice his distinctive laid-back flow. But at the same time he was serious about his.
Alvin Gentry talks constantly about how the team can’t ever get too far up or too far down. Jrue rarely gives a clue to his emotions, and rarely does he get rattled. As much as he is a competitor, the California native is definitely chill in the most heated moments of a ball game.
In the temple of Shaolin, or as you know it, the Smoothie King Center, there is one who has brought the spirit of the nine into one. New Orleans is now fully prepared to join the Jrue-Tang Clan. We have entered the 37th chamber.