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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lebron, Dirk and race

Now that Nowitzki has for good established the relevance of European basketball that can compete (and sometimes beat) the best of the best (the Americans) at their own game, let's address an issue that is always simmering topic - even while most people like to pretend it isn't there - in the US in general and in the NBA in particular: Race. Most of my (white) American friends will disagree with me on this but I am almost as certain that most of my black ones would side with me. So here goes.

Everyone interested in NBA basketball of course knows about the infamous Decision, a bungled-up PR effort by Lebron James who in a widely publicized live TV session announced his signature underneath a free agent contract with the Miami Heat leaving behind in the dust his semi-hometown team of Cleveland. This was followed up by an even worse (especially in hindsight of course but even back then) PR stunt showcasing the Heat's three stars as future champions without them having even played one game together (for the Heat that is). Bad publicity all around, yet it caused a backlash absolutely disproportionate to the event. Fans in Cleveland of course and understandably felt betrayed but others all over the United States developed a hatred of Lebron that is irrational at least. After all, would they not prefer to work for a company with better-qualified co-workers, higher chances of being the best, paying no income tax and living in Florida weather? Yet, for some reason a humanly perfectly understandable decision prompted such massive self-righteous scorn.

My argument would be that race play a non-negligible, important even, role in this. The NBA is a - predominately - black league in a white-majority market. There is a reason the league has installed a dress code for its players and cracks down hard on - recreational not performance-stimulating - drug abuse. Still, the attitude, cornrows, tattoos of players at times is a PR problem for the NBA. Lebron's decision and the following smackdown is then related to his behavior as an 'uppity nigger.' His role was to resign with his (again: semi-)hometown team and pursue a NBA championship from there. For him to deviate from that role of a humble, servile professional athlete who through hard work and relying on his (white) front office's moves tries to bring a championship to Cleveland was taken as a personal insult by far too many people in consideration of the fact that they would do exactly the same in their daily professional setting. And to pretend that race and perceptions of young black males didn't play a role in this inordinate, national - I am excluding Cleveland for obvious reasons - outrage is closing ones eyes to reality. Note that there has been an important cleavage between white and black reactions to Lebron's decision, I read an article about this a few months ago that I cannot find anymore, but basically black fans tend to far less condemn his move. Think that's because they care less about the idealism their white counterparts decry so hard?

Which brings us to second race issue that dominated these NBA finals and this time its black on white racism. Lebron and Wade collectively engaged in some fake coughing in an infamous incident taken to be a mockery of Dirk who in Game 4 had played with a fever and intermittently sitting on the bench coughing his heart out. Now why does this matter? Mostly because it is representative of a more global (as in general) trend of black basketball player disrespecting white for being, for somehow not being 'real.' The New York Times hinted at this in an article but shied away from really addressing it.

As a not-too-muscular, white basketball player who has spent a decent amount of time on courts all over the United States where few white players show up, I am of course well-familiar with the basic difficulty of getting picked up by anyone simply due to my skin color. Further than that though even when playing there are always a few players who will disrespect me because of being white (consistently leaving me open, teammates not passing because of a lack of trust). Don't get me wrong usually the game talks for itself and I've rarely had negative experiences as a (racial and otherwise) stranger in these areas and on these courts, but there remains an undercurrent of disdain for a white guy who wants to compete with black players on their level. Lebron and Wade mocking Dirk is just that the way I see it, a refusal to accept that a white player - especially one without much attitude, athleticism and muscles - can be better (even if it is just for one series) than them.

The NBA, where race happens but with if any openly talk about it.

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