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(Photo: Jake Munro)
(Photo: Jake Munro)

Pop CultureDecember 6, 2018

Old dog: the Samoan spirit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

(Photo: Jake Munro)
(Photo: Jake Munro)

Tom Scott tells the story behind his unique music video/documentary ‘Old Dogs’.

I spent a whole lot of my childhood in a place called Youth Town, a community centre on Nelson Street that was set up by a philanthropist to keep troubled kids occupied. Youth Town was like our second home growing up. The people that volunteered there were our second parents. Mischief’s best medicine. Then, like something out of a Disney movie, some super villain came along and ‘developed’ it. It’s a car park now. What a development.

Youth Town was where I first saw ‘DownTown’ Langi Brown. The basketball court there was our Rucker Park and Langi was something like the Samoan spirit of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He had the jersey, the goggles and the hook shot down to a tee. Everyone knew him, whether they knew him or not. We’d all play pick up games together where the teams were assembled by entropy and you’d end up forced to know your teammates. Langi was one of mine on a few occasions but it wasn’t until about 20 years later that I really got to know him.

We had just got a video grant for our song ‘Old Dogs’, and in my head, there was no better lead role for the video than Langi. He encapsulated what I was trying to say in the song better than I ever could. I hit up my bro Linsey Taite to track him down, he told me he’d heard Langi was still working in the same factory he’d worked in for 30 years, hadn’t seen him since Youth Town got shut down, gave me his number and I rang it. First time I’d ever heard the voice of the man. ‘Hello?’ he answered like a question, shocked to believe anyone was calling him let alone wanting to make a documentary about him.

We started off talking basketball. But like any good talk about basketball, it’s not really about basketball. Langi eventually was breaking down his life for me. From travelling to New Zealand, a kid fresh off the plane from paradise, to working in a factory for minimum wage and cyanide poisoning. From game-winning shots to soul-destroying redundancy. He told me about the factory he’d been working in for 30 years and the day the boss sat him down to lay him off. Sent free with $15,000 redundancy pay for a lifetime’s work and an empty promise “don’t worry you’ll find another one”. It was the same story I’d heard growing up. My next door neighbour’s story. My best friend’s dad’s story. It was the story of way too many Polynesian people who came to New Zealand looking for opportunity.

Just some old dogs, sitting watching time run past, in the park (Photo: Petra Leary).

Langi told me about the Kingsland that he knew as a kid. He told me what it was like watching it leave. A feeling I could relate to watching my neighbourhood being eaten by gentrification. A new real estate agency popping up on the corner every year like a new malignant tumour. They tell you it isn’t terminal. “Necessary”, they say from the top of the new ‘affordable’ $800,000 apartments that look down on the basketball court at the end of Langi’s street. The same court I hooped on as a kid. My best friend lived on School Road and we shared that court with Langi like shift work. We’d kick a rugby ball around the carpark while Herbs were rehearsing in the Whare Tapere on the corner. There’s a lot of Auckland’s history buried in that area of town and Langi’s family home that still stands up the road on First Ave is something like a museum. Along with The Satele’s and The Browns, they’re the last remaining people still there from the 60s.

“It’s a hard life,” Langi told me. But he never complained about it. He flipped every problem into a solution with the optimism of a champion that’d never had an easy win in his life. Langi isn’t exactly society’s usual hero. He’s not some rags to riches story. He’s just a regular dude. An old dog that never bit anybody. He carries his basketball under his arm like holy scripture and he goes on doing what he loves to do regardless. He’s the lorax of Kingsland. A certified Youth Town Hall of Famer. The MVP of the misfits. ‘DownTown’ Langi Brown.

In the day, some of us kids thought he actually was Kareem. Shit, he was our Kareem. So, we thank you Langi. For being unapologetically you. “Live life, Love life. Have a Barbecue”. And if you see Langi around this summer on some hoop somewhere in the city, hit him up. Hit him in the right elbow for the sky hook.

Keep going!