Vacuous, unchecked rock lore holds that Pearl Jam—before they settled on the sploogiest name in pop music history—were first called Mookie Blaylock. Grunge's stadium heroes would have been named after a very good, but never great, NBA point guard, if only Blaylock hadn't taken notice and forced a name change.
There's lot that's appealing about this version of events. Even then, Blaylock was very Pearl Jam. Nirvana was a cultural event; Soundgarden, frightening intense; Alice in Chains might steal your wallet (right off the wallet chain). Pearl Jam were the everyman rockers who hung around the right crowd, enthusiastic, up to their necks in gear, and possibly a little thick, though not in some post-neolithic hardcore kind of way. Was calling themselves "Mookie Blaylock" their one great, pre-Ticketmaster, act of subversion, a sign of real individuality when Pearl Jam was sorely in need of that kind of cred (even before longevity, success, fame, and stability took their toll?) Was Blaylock himself random, esoteric, or mediocre? Blaylock was very Pearl Jam, but that answers nothing definitively. At least two times out of three, the story works in their favor.
Blaylock himself was a perfectly respectable playmaker and a strong defender, who worked well with others and yet always had room for demonstrations of flash. When Pearl Jam took his name, Blaylock was in his second season with the Nets, averaging 14.1 points, 6.1 assists, and 2.3 steals a game. It was a marked uptick from his rookie numbers (10.1, 4.2, 1.6), showing both the value of increased minutes and the coaching staff's realization that someone had to run that team. More or less, it reflected his stat profile, and team role, for the rest of his career—even when he was traded to the equally ineffectual Hawks in the summer of 1992. Blaylock led the league in steals twice, never broke 10 assists per game, and topped out at 17.4 points per game, in 1996-97.
He was an All-Star in 1993-94; had a shaved dome and chiseled physique when fades and "smooth muscle" were still the norm; and could always be counted on for minor upheavals, via crossovers, hesitations, or bolts to the basket that left no question as to his strong on-court identity (if not necessarily his value). In this way, he may have been the perfect analogy for Pearl Jam before they even knew it.
Above all else, though, he was a name. Mookie Wilson started the party, but "Wilson" was a perpetual reminder of the ordinary. The last name of Spike Lee's character in Do The Right Thing is HBCU pub quiz material. Mookie Blaylock took those two syllables—affable, but still tough—and added on "Blaylock," which made the whole thing continue on forever.
The Mookie Blaylock episode brought the slightest hint of unpredictability, even danger to their image. It was a joke with consequences. In this very small way, Pearl Jam had suffered for their art. Ten took its name from Blaylock's jersey number, as if to say, "hey journeyman athlete, you cannot shut down rock 'n' roll!"
And yet "it was just a name" never really held water; nor did obliquely naming Ten, with its ode to teamwork cover art, as a fuck-you gesture toward a second or third tier athlete seemingly moored to insignificant franchises. And of all the names, 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 interview 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 reappropriation. 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?
Bethlehem Shoals writes about the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a charter member of The Classical, which is still raising funds.