By Vincent Thomas

By now, everyone has seen the cover of SLAM Issue 115, right? It features a great photo of two of the NBA’s biggest stars – Melo and AI – doing something that you don’t see too often on a SLAM cover – smiling. It’s one of my favorite covers. But when I peeped that cover for the first time, all I could think about was a mid-90s Dominique Wilkins. Remember that ‘Nique? Forget that he was playing in that ugly green and white Celtics jersey, wearing #12 and not his legendary #21. Forget all that. The travesty and tragedy of that ‘Nique, was the sight of this black man still rockin’ a box-cut in 1995. What was he thinking? He didn’t wise up, though. His next stop was a black and gray hookup with the Spurs and The Admiral, where – you’re not gonna believe this – both of these black men were still rockin’ boxes! It was 1997! I mean, what, were they still doing the running man with Bobby Brown to “Every Little Step,” too? We could forgive David Robinson. He was always on some square biz…but not ‘Nique. There was no excuse for the Human Highlight Film to persist with the box-cut – not years after the Fab Five made baldies hip and Wu and Snoop re-introduced cornrows.

Ah, cornrows. We’ve come full-circle. Getting back to Melo and AI…I gotta admit that it’s disconcerting to see two of the coolest, most credible dudes in the L with these intricate, 12-hour cornrow/braids designs still atop their skulls. It’s unacceptable. I kept thinking, “What if Tom Brady and Tony Romo rocked mullets?” As implausible as that sounds, that’s the only comparable image – two of the coolest star-quarterbacks sporting some ape-drapes. Cornrows and mullets are, to me, much like sweet potato and pumpkin pie.

So, I guess, this is a call to action. It’s 2008 and I’m calling for all cornrows to be recalled and placed in storage for at least 20 years. Braids are yesterday and passé. The beginning of this end came early in the new millennium when alien-skull Scottie (Pippen) thought it’d be cool for a 15-year vet to get him some Mystikals. The end of the end arrived in October when Brad Miller and his blonde hair shamed the style into a public realm occupied by things like Yugos, Ja Rule and Gigli. “You drive a Yugo?!” “You listen to Ja Rule?!” “You bought Gigli?!” “You rock cornrows?! What are you, a Betamax?!”

Sort of sad, really, since cornrows began as a hairstyle of function (began in sub-Saharan Africa as a style of easy maintenance), morphed into a time-intensive exhibit of Afro-American artistry (even though some resemble ant farms, the designs are quite fascinating) and then served as a symbol of Gen X and Y individuality and status-quo defiance for a good six to ten years beginning around 1993. Now? Well, unless Ving Rhames is playing an OG in a John Singleton film set in 1998, there’s really no good reason for any grown man to rock ‘rows, lest he invite chuckles.

The same thing happened with mullets. First it was function (fishermen wearing their hair long to keep them warm, rednecks wearing their hair long so they wouldn’t be physical rednecks); it morphed into fashion (glam-rock tastemakers like David Bowie dug mullets in the 70s); and then…well, clowns like MacGuyver started rockin’ them. And then Michael Bolton. And finally Billy Ray Cyrus, which immediately sent mullets spiraling toward the comic depth of public ridicule. Next thing you know, smarmy bands are making sardonic songs about mullets and David Spade is parodying the stereotypical doofus in Joe Dirt, who, of course, rocked a mullet.

Forgetting the comedy factor, for the moment, it’s also important to note the stigma attached to the styles, thanks to an ignorant American public always in a haste to stereotype, a club in which I am a card-carrying member. These days, both mullets and cornrows have become cultural identifiers for the low-brow. Come to an interview with either style and you’re pretty much ruining your chances with 60% of the jobs in the professional workforce. (Yep, we’re going here.)

Rock a mullet and you’re stereotyped – plain and simple. You’re a hillbilly, a redneck, a rube, a NASCAR fan, you dig Lynyrd Skynyrd. I lived in Florida for about two years working as a reporter out of a suburban bureau. In southern suburbs, you can go from a strip mall to a dirt road where folks are walking around without shoes. I saw my fair share of mullets during my stay; and when around a mullet, I stayed on the safe side and knew not to make any snide comment about Kenny Chesney or Wal-Mart.

Braids have taken on a similar type of cultural attachment in recent years. When they first reappeared on the scene, it was the hottest thing out. Method Man was my favorite emcee back in 93/94 and he rocked cornrows. Once the emcees and ‘hood-tastemakers do anything, everyone follows, including athletes. Some ballers started rocking braids for functionality reasons, but far more did it for fashion/imaging reasons. AI tried to front like he wore cornrows because he was sick and tired of his hairline getting pushed back and enjoyed braids’ easy maintenance, but we know better. It was cool. There was something brazen and righteously defiant about black youth reacquainting themselves with an old black staple, especially when it spilled over into the sanctimonious world of corporate sports. Allen Iverson was almost like a political figure. But the American public began associating braids with a criminal element, mostly because the rappers that re-popularized the style went extra-hard at presenting themselves as criminals. The ill thing is that, more than tattoos, more than baggy shorts, more than “trash-talking”, more than anything, cornrows/braids were the cultural identifier that turned the modern black athlete and a league like the NBA into something that the American “buying/consuming/supporting” public believed to be a clan of thugs.

But soon, like all fashion trends, things changed. Rappers, like Luda and Meth – even Beanie Sigel – started electing for short ceasars. Athletes, as always, followed suit. The new set of stars — Bron, Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard — are coming in the league with short cuts. Braids are going the way of a relic. Except, a few folks persist.

So I beseech AI and Melo: It was fun while it lasted, but the party’s over. Grown-man up. It’s 2008. Leave the cornrows to Darius Miles…and Brad Miller. Don’t be Old ‘Nique, getting pinned on the rim, rockin’ a Dwayne-Wayne.