The Myth of Mookie Blaylock and Pearl Jam

Every grunge fan worth his weight in flannel shirts knows that the original name of Pearl Jam was Mookie Blaylock and I always thought it was because they were huge fans of his, paying homage to his great college career at Oklahoma and a decent pro career, but it turns out this was not the case at all. This story I found on DeadSpin clears matters up once and for all.

Why”Mookie Blaylock” in the first place? It indicated a familiarity with—gasp—sports. And not any kind of hometown Seattle team that could be seen as supporting the scene, like the way LA gangs got really into Kings gear. Unlikely isn’t always the same as illogical. Blaylock, though, had nothing to do with the Sonics. He wasn’t even in the same conference. With Kurt Cobain blaming, or crediting, abusive jocks for his teenage alienation, Pearl Jam was, for the moment, on the wrong side of history.

The real story, according to a 2008 inerview Montana native Jeff Ament gave to the The Missoulan, was even more incriminating. You can really see why alternate versions had to be invented and circulated.

“When we were recording our first record, we had a per diem of about $10. So when we got lunch at the store across the street, we’d always buy a pack of basketball cards. When we turned in our tape, we didn’t have a name for the band yet so we put a Mookie Blaylock card in the case. We were about to go on a tour and still didn’t have a name and needed one quickly. We were told it didn’t need to be the name that we were going to use forever, just something for the tour. Someone saw the Mookie Blaylock card and said, ‘How about Mookie Blaylock?’ We decided to go with it and did a 10-show tour with Alice in Chains as Mookie Blaylock. Mookie was cool about it, too—he didn’t sue us. I actually got to meet him later on and shoot around a little bit. We also made a Pearl Jam T-shirt with a picture of him on it. I guess we owe Mookie a lot.”

No legal battle. No conflict with some millionaire athlete and the awful powers of copyright law. And worst of all, a pack of basketball cards purchased when that money could have gone toward heroin or flannel. “Mookie Blaylock” was never Pearl Jam’s great indie stand, nor some kind of re-appropriation. The musical name wasn’t Dada-ish nonsense; it was inseparable from the appeal of the player, who—even if he was picked from out of stack of cards—was still an object of affection for Ament. Blaylock starred at Oklahoma and would have been plenty familiar to Ament, a decent high school athlete who attended the University of Montana, and may have harbored walk-on dreams around the time Blaylock was a regional monster.

Untangled and unpacked, the Mookie Blaylock episode has actually ended up serving Pearl Jam well. In 1991, we were decades away from the birth of the modern hoopster. Today, the jock-indie hybrid is celebrated, even encouraged. It’s best for Pearl Jam that we think of this as a tribute to an underappreciated player, not a tossed-off, tongue-in-cheek gesture. They dropped the name after deciding that being named after some other dude was weird, and misleading. However, they did succeed in bringing a little more attention to Mookie. When you look at it this way, maybe the title of Ten isn’t defiant, or an in-joke, but one last—and lasting—nod to the man himself. Pearl Jam weren’t wishy-washy or half-poseur, they were ahead of their time. And they weren’t pulling random players out of a hat to mock sports. They had refined basketball tastes, and were just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Mookie Blaylock would have better off without his nearly famous name; it distracts from the perfectly respectable career he had. “The man who nearly was Pearl Jam” isn’t exactly what professional athletes aspire to as their epitaph. Then again, if Blaylock had been truly terrible, and really nothing more than a name, would Pearl Jam have chosen him?

Special thanks to Bethlehem Shoals who writes about the NBA for Bleacher/Report

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