Saturday, 3 May 2014

NBA v Sterling

There has been a lot said about the recent events in the NBA around the Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racism. As someone who is passionately and actively against racism, and who passionately loves the game of basketball, I wanted to express for myself some thoughts, maybe just to clear my own head.

I write from a place of who I am. An English white male, with no experience of being a victim of racism and of limited knowledge of the NBA’s structure behind the game itself that I love watching… I’d never heard of Donald Sterling prior to this, or the things he’s done before this incident. Because of my perspective and life experiences, I write in the belief that I (and every white person) should not take a view on how African American players and coaches (past and present) in the NBA have chosen to act, write, speak, or play ball. I have read humbled, and learning at the many views expressed by African Americans, some who love basketball, some who don’t, and others who have little interest at a time when perspectives could, and should, be focused on the terrible kidnap of teenage girls in Nigeria. Also I respect those who have commented on the issue as part of the wider context of American/Western society’s treatment of those of African descent, rather than in isolation as an NBA incident. I can only learn from reading those angles, and in this piece I have simply put together what this meant from my personal relationship with basketball.

My expression is simply from my perspective, and not as a response to those who know from their experiences.

As a teenager at a Berkshire school, one PE lesson was to split us into teams and play basketball for the first time. I remember getting the ball in the corner baseline and taking a shot. Even though I had slap the ball dribbling skills, the shot I put up arched off my fingers, and I remember this incredible feeling of knowing that as soon as the ball left my fingers, I could tell the ball was going through the net. It was a euphoric moment before the ball even swished… telepathy knowing the shot was instantly good (to this day my favourite shot is from the baseline!)

I had fallen in love with basketball, and although not particularly good at it (until I started playing with my head as well as my body in my 30’s), I was hooked. When I left school I joined a local club and kept working at it. NBA names meant nothing to me, other than some old Sports Illustrated magazines, where I fell in love with Doctor J and the Sixers, even though I never saw them actually play on TV for several years later. Soon my bedroom was adorned with posters of NBA stars, including the good Doctor, Magic and Moses Malone. My sister was by this time working in Kansas City, and would send me back Sports Illustrated, NBA season previews (as well as cassette recordings of funk and early hip hop radio stations).

As I grew, my naïve liberal views on race (we should all just get along, don’t see colour, type stuff) grew (and still grows) into understanding what actively fighting racism means for a white male. Learning that racism isn’t my perspective. That multi-culturism means embracing and loving difference, not assimilation. That equality cannot be had on an unlevel playing field. On the basketball court, within that rectangle, equality was a level playing field. As Magic Johnson recently said, sport is a great leveller. There’s a lot of truth in that, and I believe this is true for hoop more than other sports. That might simply be my perspective, but within that rectangle, on the hard wood, I was a minority. There’s probably a lot of naivety in that statement. But that’s how I grew around the sport. Basketball meant so much to me as a sport for the game I loved playing, and for the oneness on the court. Of course as I grew I learned that life experiences off the court varied dependent on how society viewed those I was playing with, and that is something that fuelled my fight against racism further.

So this last week, my game…  my passion for a sport that I had entwined with equality, came under attack from everything the sport doesn’t stand for. I was hurt for those directly under attack. I was hurt for what this game means to me. Damn, I even just started playing basketball again and have been watching some of the most enthralling first round playoffs that the NBA has ever seen. Not my game. I said at the time… this is basketball’s chance to show the rest of the world how you deal with racism in sport. After football’s (soccer) inadequacy at dealing with racism, this was an opportunity for my sport to show that the ideals I believe in, count for something.

A lot was said about how the LA Clippers players and coaches should have acted. Some of that opinion came from white reporters close to the game. That was a complete no no for me. How anyone white could possibly decide what NBA players (I believe of whom 80% are African American) should do….nope. Address your white perspectives please to what the largely white ownership and white crowds should do to stand up for their African American players, colleagues and friends.

The things I didn’t know… that on the previous NBA Commissioner’s watch, Sterling got away with many despicable acts, and there’s definitely a gap here… how the NBA dress code could ever have been more important than that etc. No question, some fault lines within the wider structure of the NBA and how white privilege in society has played out in white ownership and the thousands of white faces I see in the stands of games, watching an African American majority sport. Chris Rock’s sketch about rich v wealthy, plays out here.
Many comments I’ve read have alluded to uncomfortability with these and other issues. I would like to see the NBA address these, and if David Stern’s (the former Commissioner) biggest regret was moving the Seattle team out of the city, I hope he might want to revisit that thought. He perhaps left the Sterling time bomb unattended.

Now, on recently appointed Commissioner Silver’s watch, the current issue needed dealing with. And this is where I have to give him support. The fine, the banning of Sterling from anything NBA for life, and the speed and determination with which he took action. He gave Sterling everything he could in the current constitution. The battle is still to come in untangling his team ownership. But the message was simple.  It was more than the tag line of “Kick Racism out of sport,” more like….”There’s no F*cking place for Racism in this sport.”  That’s what I wanted to hear for those I love, and for the game I love. This is why it was big to me. As I tweeted. Football, take a long hard look at the NBA… and learn.

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