Friday, December 23, 2005

Race: CBA KKK

Devoted reader, former roommate, and all around smart dude Ben sent us an interesting article about Gonzaga basketball phenom Adam Morrison. For those out of the loop, Morrison is a 6-8 white guy who idolizes Larry Bird. The thrust of this article, found in Slate, is that almost every promising white player is compared to Larry Bird at some point, which is both unfair to them and to Bird. A great quote:

"Want proof that getting compared to Bird is a one-way ticket to the Caucasian basketball graveyard? A list of players who've been identified as Bird-like reads like the roster of a CBA team sponsored by the KKK."

When we started Setshot, Old School and I talked a lot about taking on the issue of race -- particularly as it pertained to pickup hoops. But we could never figure out a way to address it concisely and originally. The issue is just too big, too complicated, too scary -- and many writers have already produced intelligent, cogent commentaries (for example, Frey, Shields, Wideman; see "Best Hoops Reading").

I think that our only hope here is to address race in little tiny stabs. I'll devote a future post to my experiences as an Asian pickup player, but for now, let's talk about Morrison, Bird, and the World of Whites. I think that the Slate article is provocative, but the argument's not water-tight. Yes, white guys have traditionally been compared to Bird, but this is changing fast as new and different forms of whiteness have emerged in basketball (Nash, Ginobili, D.I.R.K.) Also, because Morrison himself claims to idolize Bird, saying that it's unfair to compare the two is itself a bit unfair. That said, race is race, and there will probably always be an "apples to apples" temptation among sports commentators and pundits. When the NBA is full of Asians, will they all be compared to Yao? "You know Bill, that Chang reminds me a lot of Yao Ming. And only eleven inches shorter! The resemblence . . . is . . . remarkable."

The Slate article talks about the Gonzaga-Oklahoma State game in which Morrison hit a bank three at the buzzer to win it, focusing on the announcers' incessant Morrison-Bird comparisons, but it fails to mention another interesting exchange that I caught between CBS commentators Bill Raftery and Gus Johnson. Early in the game, they were discussing the Bird-Morrison thing, and Raftery said something to the effect of: "Morrison actually reminds me of another player: Kiki Vandeweghe." Johnson, clearly aware (at least to me) that they had only compared Morrison to white players, hastily added "Or Reggie Miller! Or Rip Hamilton!"

So I don't even know what the point of all this is. I guess only that the issue of race in sports is sensitive, but also complicated. Setshotters: Help me understand white people.



5 comments:

Old School said...

I often get called "Bird" on the court. It's always annoyed me. First, because I grew up in East Lansing and my main childhood hero was Magic. Second, because I hate the Celtics. Third, because I usually interpret it to mean that not only am I white, but I am whiter than white.

Which may be true. I once played in a game with a bunch of Greeks and Italians in Queens and when it came time to pick teams, one captain pointed to me and said, "I'll take the white guy". Everybody laughed and I joined my new team. Of course, Greeks, Italians and Irish were not considered part of the "white" race until the late 19th century, but I doubt that this is what the captain was referring to. On the other hand, a black captain in Brooklyn once pointed to me and said "I'll take that nigga." When one of the other players stepped forward, he said, "No, the white nigga." I was quite flattered by all this.

So why is it so great to be called "nigga"? And so bad to be called "whiter than white"? The NBA has long been dominated by black players. And basketball has taken much of its culture from black culture, most recently from hip hop. Nowhere is this more true than in playground ball, and it's recently commercialized variant, streetball. Moreover, black basketball culture has put a particular premium not just on scoring, but on scoring with style, grace and beauty. You don't just want to win, you want to look good doing it. So to be called "whiter than white" means that you play ugly, your moves lack style, and you don't really fit into the dominant basketball culture.

But maybe I'm too sensitive. Maybe, there is a more benign explanation--the one at least suggested by the article that Jeff posted--that Larry Bird is the greatest white player. In other words, when people call me "Larry Bird" (and Jeff has even done it) they simply mean that I am playing well and since I happen to be white they'll call me Bird instead of Magic. I'd still prefer the latter.

CJB said...

People usually call me "Smooth Amazing Rock Solid Chocolate Huge Lane Penetrating Graceful Next Coming of Earl the Pearl Monroe" when I play. But sometimes they just call me "Dunn", short for Dunleavy. Usually that's when I'm hung over. Or hang from the rim. Or just hung. What's with me today?

aloneconformist said...

wish you would keep trying to chisel into the race question a little...

some interesting reading to add to your list... harvey araton's "crashing the borders: how basketball won the world and lost its soul at home" and todd boyd's "young, black, rich and famous"

interesting post. glad i found this blog.

Jeff said...

Here's an article that does a great job summarizing the main strands of this debate. Interestingly, he concludes with "I'm not sure what any of this means (or proves..." -- just like us!

http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=klosterman/060111

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