On Watching Black Kids

by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones

When the news broke on Saturday night, I was sitting alone in a cheap hotel room in Augusta, Ga. I hadn’t paid much attention to the trial, but of course I knew what was going on, and, based on the little I’d read in recent days, I knew there was a pretty good chance George Zimmerman would get off.

It hadn’t occurred to me that I was in a place, and surrounded by people, for whom this would be much more than just the big news story of the week.

I’m in Augusta to cover Peach Jam, aka the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League championship, arguably the premier high school event of the summer. Peach Jam is held annually in North Augusta, S.C., just across the river; most of the best players in the nation are here, and, yes, most of them are black. Pretty much every Division I college basketball coach in the nation is here, as are a bunch of reporters and recruiting analysts, and yes, most of us are white. More than a few of the coaches are millionaires, and most of us media types do alright; the kids, of course, are in high school, and thus play for little more than free gear, the dream of a scholarship and love of the game.

We all know how unseemly it can be to watch (again, mostly white) coaches making six- and seven-figure salaries, coaching (again, mostly black) kids who aren’t allowed to take a penny, so I’ll skip dwelling on that here. As a white guy who’s been working with SLAM for nearly 15 years, I am at the moment feeling a little more self-reflective. And a little unseemly myself.

At Peach Jam this weekend, I’m doing what I always do at events like this: watching games, BSing with coaches and colleagues, figuring out which of these talented kids are “worth” a mention in whatever space I’ve got to to fill. It’s a job, and it’s not inherently evil, but it sometimes also kind of sucks. It sucks because these are kids from places like Chicago (where everyone seems to be shooting everyone) and New York (where the crime rate is going up for the first time in decades) and lots of other mostly urban places where poverty and crime and broken public schools tend to be real issues.

When the best kids emerge from such situations, it’s a bonus for guys like me, a more compelling story to tell. When the other kids go back to those situations, guys like me generally never knew it in the first place. Those kids aren’t tall or quick or coordinated enough to get their name in SLAM, so I won’t write about them, and you, dear reader, never had a reason to care in the first place. This is how things work, and I suppose we all know it whether we’re conscious of it or not.

But I was conscious of it on Saturday night. One or two of the participating Peach Jam teams are staying at this same cheap hotel just off the interstate, a Waffle House no more than 100 yards in either direction. The night before, Friday, a bunch of them—16- and 17-year-old kids, teammates on a summer road trip—were in the hallway outside my room, clowning and joking until after midnight. I thought briefly of opening my door, showing them my SLAM credential, and telling them we’d put them all on the cover if only they’d shut up and let me get some sleep. I let it go.

On Saturday night, after the verdict, I didn’t hear any laughing. I heard brief spurts of something angry, words that echoed what some of the other kids at this tournament were saying in my Twitter feed. These are the sorts of kids—some of them, anyway—who have narrowed their college lists to the likes of Kentucky and Indiana and Louisville and Duke, kids you can expect to see drafted in the next couple of years. They’re already famous on some level, and before long, at least a few of them will be very famous, and very rich. In that, they would seem to have nothing in common with the baby-faced kid in the hoodie whose death in Florida justice appears to have failed. The kids themselves, of course, know better.

So I heard anger, and resignation, but mostly, what I heard was my own mind running. Asking myself if doing this job makes me part of the problem, if working for the “hip-hop” basketball magazine and knowing lots of rap lyrics means I’m attuned enough to these kids’ realities, and wondering if I might not be better off staying in the room tonight instead of walking down the block for a milkshake.

I went to bed Saturday night knowing I’d wake up Sunday and go back to the gym and go back to watching these same kids, and I’d wonder what was going through their minds. Wondering if the news would affect how they’d play, how they’d feel, and how they might view the crowd of mostly white men, watching them intently until they ceased being good enough to pay attention to, and then forgetting all about them forever.