David Shields Reflects on Race in the NBA

"In the NBA, as nowhere else in America, white people are utterly beholden to black people, and they're not about to let us off that easily; it's a kind of very mild payback for the last 500 years."

"In the NBA an enormous amount of money is given to a few hundred black men in order, it sometimes seems, to make up for a society's collective guilt." Hello! When I read something this provocative, I take notice. "White people revere and resent this concentration of triumphant blackness; black players, as if charged with the task of getting retribution for black people everywhere, act like the most pampered divas." When these ideas are collected under the title Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season (Crown, 223 pp., $23) by acclaimed fiction writer and essayist David Shields (Dead Languages, Remote, A Handbook for Drowning, and Heroes), who spent the 1994-95 season with the Seattle Supersonics to examine his obsessions with Gary Payton, race, and the black male body, I want to talk.

The guy is a fan. He's also smart and brave. You want tepid sports journalism, you read David Halberstam, not David Shields. Black Planet is an act of cultural meditation. Its focus is on race, not only the gap that divides black from white, but the weird assessment of one another that goes on, the mutual projection and longing for both closeness and superiority ­ ultimately, for a language that might, beneath all the taunting and trash talk, might unite us. Its style is also up to the task of illuminating our cultural moment. Part diary, part memoir, part critical inquiry into our national mythologies, the book reads like an instant replay of our era, seen from all the angles, in slow mo and freeze frame.

The first question I put to David concerned the Spurs. Avery Johnson had just said that the Spurs don't get the respect they deserve as World Champs, everybody's talking about the Lakers. So I asked if David saw this as being due to the fact that the Spurs don't project the gangsta attitude that the Lakers do. Is respect in the NBA all about attitude and body type? David sent back a nearly 4,000-word answer, an article he had recently written about the 1999 NBA season, which, excerpted here, summarizes his concerns in Black Planet and seemed to cover everything I could have hoped to ask him about the Spurs vs. Knicks finals, portrayed by the media as the good guys vs. the bad guys, white projections about the black male body, and the meaning of hoops as our sport of the moment. David Shields got game. If you want to dig at a deeper level, read his book.

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