Taboo Topics, True Subjects

Reflections on Race in the NBA

Taboo Topics, True Subjects

The National Basketball Association, which began its 1999-2000 season a few weeks ago, is a photo negative of American race relations: strong young black men have some of the power, much of the money, and all of the fun. The NBA is a place where, without acknowledging it -- and because it's never acknowledged, it's that much more potent and telling -- white fans, coaches, announcers, and owners, on the one hand, and black players, on the other, enact and quietly explore virtually every racial issue and tension in the culture at large. Race, the league's taboo topic, is the league's true subject. Take the 1999 NBA Finals, for instance. People said the New York-San Antonio matchup was about speed vs. size or fastbreak basketball vs. post-up basketball or East vs. West or metropolis vs. podunk. With almost comic explicitness and near-perfect symmetry, with a symbolism approximately as oblique as that of Rocky or Hoosiers, the Finals were really about two ways of being a black man in America. Gangsta; Good Negro. (Why can the latter phrase not be used anymore unless swathed in irony? Because, like "white trash," its meaning derives from the racist assumption that "black trash" or "bad Negro" would be redundant.) Two days after the Finals, I heard a San Antonio Spurs fan say to an ESPN Sports Radio talk-show host who is a Knicks fan: "[Marcus] Camby [the Knicks' center] looked like he just got out of a concentration camp [he's skinny and has tattoos]. You got an $84-million slave [Larry Johnson, who called himself and his teammates "rebellious slaves"]. Latrine [Latrell Sprewell] is a nauseating excuse for an athlete. The Knicks are gangsters, basically. I'll never know how guys like that can be allowed to stay in the league. They should all be in jail. The Spurs are classy gentlemen. The Knicks -- they're all just about the ho's."

Oh. Okay. The ho's. You may have found the Spurs' affectless demeanor boring, their establishmentarianism off-putting, their religiosity saccharine. Think, though, how exhausting it would be to be a black man in America. Your relationship to the majority culture is always under observation; you're either in constant conflict with that culture (the Knicks' Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson) or in suspiciously easy harmony (the Spurs' David Robinson, Tim Duncan).

Between games three and four, Larry Johnson, frustrated by his injured knee and poor play, cursed at a member of the NBA's public-relations staff (an African-American woman, it was widely noted -- he's mean to everybody!) who asked him to fulfill his obligation of meeting with reporters. He was fined $25,000, and the Knicks were fined another $25,000. When Johnson finally did agree to talk to the press, he said his motto was "Fuck the world." NBC sportscaster Bill Walton called Johnson "a disgrace and a sad human being." Johnson, newly converted to Islam, says Walton "should check his history and see how many slaves his ancestors had."

To reporters and announcers, history is over or, at best, just a rumor somewhere out there, whereas to the players, history is about to begin in earnest. 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. White people revere and resent this concentration of triumphant blackness; black players, as if charged with the task of gaining retribution for black people everywhere, act like the most pampered divas: I will take absolutely no shit from you; the terms will be as follows --

The same day I was listening to ESPN Radio, I heard another sports-talk caller ask, with genuine worry in his voice, "Can nice guys like David Robinson and Tim Duncan even be marketed anymore?" It's not an uninteresting question, since Duncan was easily the best player in the series, but he was absolutely imperturbable, Buddhistically detached, cool beyond cool. Asked before Game 3 for his reaction to Madison Square Garden -- he was expected to say that he was "intimidated" by coming to the "mecca of basketball" -- he instead just shrugged and said, "Nice rims." When San Antonio won the championship, all the other Spurs celebrated maniacally; Duncan pulled out his mini-camcorder and took home movies. Was his uncanny self-possession of interest to fans? Not many. We go to the game because we want intimations of excitement/danger/evil, of something sad or bad in ourselves we would express if we had the talent or the nerve. I'm not sure we go to the game to witness the peace that passeth understanding.

During halftime of the third game of the series, Peter Vecsey, interviewing Latrell Sprewell on NBC, said he'd love to hear what sort of trash-talking Sprewell used to do with Michael Jordan. Sprewell demurred. Journalists always want to know what Player X was saying out there on the court to Player Y. Player X always deflects the question, since it is, in a sense, a rude question. It's tantamount to asking lovers the content of their pillow talk: It's our camaraderie, not yours.

Vecsey felt it incumbent upon himself to ask Sprewell whether he understood that if the Knicks win the championship, he'd be as big in New York as Walt Frazier once was. Sprewell again, wisely, demurred. Vecsey was trying to make sure that Sprewell understood that this wasn't just a game; it was about something really quite significant: hype.

During the interview with Vecsey, Sprewell wore large, black, rectangular, "library-style" glasses. Who had ever seen him wearing glasses before? Where did he get these things? Watching the interview, watching it over and over again on tape, I was dying to know whether the glasses are real, though even if they are real, surely his agent conjured them up to signify that Spree is not only a physical being (a gifted athlete who once choked his coach) but a mental one as well (he's a thoughtful, reflective, and articulate man whose hobby happens to be fixing old stereos). Maybe, though, Sprewell just likes wearing glasses when he's not playing. Or maybe he came up with the marketing strategy himself. In any case, it's there as pure subtext -- how cerebral is this physically blessed/cursed black man? -- which everyone is aware of and which no one talks about in public. There's something brilliantly subversive and thrilling about the directness with which Sprewell's glasses address the mind/body split which is a central governing metaphor of racism.

A few days after the Finals, on NPR's Talk of the Nation, two black men -- Len Elmore, a former NBA player who is now an attorney, and Michael Eric Dyson, a professor at DePaul -- talked to the host, Ray Suarez, for an hour about Latrell Sprewell. Dyson said that "the representational burden these young black men bear is extraordinary," but at the same time he saw Sprewell as a metaphor for, variously, the "complexities of black male identity," "black masculine style," "the brother who can't get a break no matter what," "the working-class aesthetic over against these whining, high-paid superstars who refuse to get down in the trenches and do the dirty work," and "black privilege overstepping its boundaries and then getting uppity in a serious way." Dyson thus both protested against this "extraordinary representational burden" and, inevitably, perpetuated it (as I, too, am doing). The representational burden is the famous "double-consciousness" which W.E.B. DuBois identified as the African-American dilemma -- being both a person and (to yourself, to members of your own race, and to the white-majority society) a symbol. Being a person is difficult enough. Who would enjoy being a symbol of a person? Not I and not you, either.

Fans want to think that it's us against them (New York vs. San Antonio, say) and that the players on "our" team are in cahoots with us, in some difficult-to-define way -- difficult to define, since their contempt for us is so manifest. Watching the series on TV, I was struck by how bound together the five Knicks on the floor were with the five Spurs on the court, like boxers, and how the opposition was really the noise of everything else -- coaches, refs, cameras, commercials, mascots, especially fans. Fans sitting courtside always reach out to their team's players after they've made a great play; the players always rebuff the fans. And fans would, I swear, be disappointed if they were ever not rebuffed; God, as they say, doesn't return phone calls.

Although most of the Knicks gathered for a brief prayer on the court after every game -- win or lose -- the Spurs were understood to be the God Squad. When, as co-captain of the Spurs, David Robinson received the championship trophy, he said, "One thing I learned to do this year was trust the Lord through the whole thing. He blessed me, He blessed the team, He took us to the top, and if you learn anything from this, baby, learn that the Lord doesn't give up on His people, baby. He takes you all the way." This was supposed to be a spontaneous outpouring of religious fervor, but every time I rewound the videotape and watched Robinson say these words, I was struck mainly by how utterly rehearsed the speech sounds. So, too, Robinson, who gives away a large percentage of his income through his charities Feed My Sheep and The Ruth Project, was much praised for recently saying, "If I'm clutching on to my money with both hands, how can I be free to hug my wife and kids?" The effectiveness of the statement, sweet as it is, was dependent upon no one having the temerity to wonder whether it's actually Robinson's consciousness or whether his consciousness had been provided to him by the Christian Ministry.

After the Spurs beat the Knicks in Game 4, Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said, "Size does matter in this league. It does, and particularly in the playoffs. And their size beat our speed and quickness tonight." Size does matter? It seems unbelievably strange to me that, in the racial/sexual amphitheatre of the NBA, a white coach would be so tone-deaf to say this.

In a Nike commercial which ran constantly throughout the Finals, two young NBA stars, Kevin Garnett and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, are instructors at Camp Flight. They stand on a very high diving board and teach teenagers how to jump across the width of a swimming pool in order to dunk the ball into a hoop at the other end. "To master hang time, you gotta make the air your friend," Garnett tells the campers. "Jump out there and shake hands with the alley-oop," Abdur-Rahim says. All of the kids fail this surreal task, of course. At the end of the commercial, two black kids master the dunk, then a white kid trudges out of the pool, water gushing out of his Nikes. White boys are gravity-bound dorks. Black men are our hyper-realized selves, our dream-selves, our fantasy-selves, our selves that can fly.

Another ubiquitous Nike spot featured Charles Barkley teaching a group of kids at Camp Force how to post up against cows and bulls. When a white kid dribbles the ball off his foot, Barkley says, "You gonna be rejected by someone who doesn't even have hands." A heralded NBA rookie named Robert "Tractor" Traylor takes the court and Barkley says, "Show 'em how to do it, Tractor." Tractor maneuvers around a cow and dunks. The commercial ends with a white kid stepping in literal bullshit and Barkley saying, "Uh oh, Richie, we've got a triple-scooper." White boys are gravity-bound dorks. Black men are our hyper-realized selves, our dream-selves, our fantasy-selves, our selves that aren't shitty.

A third commercial that was omnipresent throughout the Finals was for NBA.Com. The Orlando Magic's Penny Hardaway asks various nerdy scientist-types -- most of whom are wearing glasses and all of whom are wearing white lab coats -- to add such features as real-time stats, Java browsers, and chat rooms to the NBA.Com Web site. Informed that NBA.Com already has all these features, he stands up and belligerently asks if NBA.Com has the recipe for his mother's meatloaf. Yes, it turns out that NBA.Com has that, too. Black men are physical marvels, but they are only physical marvels. Whenever they attempt to act civilized, they're just pretending; they quickly revert to their simple animal selves.

Immediately after San Antonio won the championship, Gregg Popovich, the Spurs' coach and general manager, was interviewed on NBC by Steve Jones. The Spurs' backup shooting guard Jaren Jackson came up behind Popovich, said, "I love you, baby," mussed his hair, and hugged him. It was a genuinely nice moment for a second or two (Popovich hugged him back and said, "I love you, too") until Popovich, fixing his hair, said to Jackson, "Lemme go." As if explaining his behavior, Jackson reiterated, "I love you, baby" -- that's why I was hugging you, man; sorry if I mussed what little hair you've got! Popovich could tell Jackson was pouting a little, so he squeezed his arm but then couldn't resist turning back to the camera and saying, "He just wants a contract next year." This line was delivered as if it were nothing more or less than locker-room teasing, but it wasn't that, or at least it wasn't only that, because Jackson, with heartbreaking vulnerability and shamelessness, replied, "I can shoot the apple, baby" -- I'm a good shooter, so bring me back next season. A simultaneous lovefest and hardball negotiation conducted, in Kabuki theatre, on national television. 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, but it doesn't work; there will never be enough money stuffed into the wounds to stop the bleeding.

My favorite moment in the series occurred during Game 2, when Jess Kersey, a patrician-looking man who must be the oldest ref in the league, said something to Sprewell as he came back onto the court after a timeout. Sprewell apparently couldn't quite hear what Kersey said, so he leaned over and leaned down until his ear was near Kersey's mouth. Kersey repeated whatever it was he had to say. Spree nodded, pointed his two index fingers at him to indicate "I gotcha," then immediately backed away. If an exchange exists that registers more exactly the current state of American race relations, I'd like to see it, for all the official authority resided in Kersey, but all the unofficial power resided in Sprewell; what a cool gesture those aimed index fingers were. You could feel Kersey trying to connect a little with Sprewell (what he had to say was probably unnecessary) and Sprewell trying to connect a little with Kersey (in the space of two seconds, his eyes melted noticeably). He didn't kowtow to Kersey, but he didn't entirely diss him, either -- What do you want from me, mister? Alright, I'll go this far and no farther. I'll meet you here, barely halfway. I'll be fun and funky with you for a sec, but let's not pretend we're pals. Okay, I'm out. end story

  • More of the Story

  • 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."

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