Originally published in SLAM 110

by Khalid Salaam

Look at the photos above. What do you feel? Don’t think, I said feel. Who are you drawn to? Why? Who would you rather watch? Who would you rather play against? Who would you root for? Don’t think, I said feel.

Of course, gender and race are the most immediate ways of identifying someone, but we’re speaking in more definite terms. Later in life we learn about the specific things that make people who they are. But it’s always been easier, if more heinous and profitable, to accept the notions that make us different at the most basic levels and see if they’re exploitable. It’s easier to do that. Granted, this is not a new phenomenon, but it seems that now more than ever, perception is favored over reality. The idea that you can circumvent considerations about actuality in favor of current trends and ageless prejudices is, sadly, alive and kicking.

I’ve done it. In my younger years, sure, but also in this decade. Not so much taking the initiative to discriminate, but by sitting idly and saying nothing when it happened in front of me. Insults and slurs galore. I justify it as “man stuff,” but so what? Pickup games are pickup games, yet the politics of 21st century America suggest you must be an outside-the-rectangle thinker. Then when you’re out there on the court and it’s time to knuckle-up and gauge the competition, you do something different. Why lie? I play the white boys for the jump shot only and on offense I’m talking at least a little trash. Reminding him that on this surface, my melanin-infused complexion makes me supreme. What they gonna say? What they gonna do? I’ll clown him about his attire, about how weak his game is, take his manhood if I damn well feel like it. I owe him this. We owe them this, right? Right?

It really started last year when JJ Redick and Adam Morrison were still collegians. They both went out with a bang in their senior years, especially Redick, who picked up the AP award given to the best player in the country. Then Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash repeated as the NBA MVP and the cultural shift was on. All of a sudden, when you went to the courts or even heard people talking, you were presented with a new reality. White boys had the biggest balls in the game now; past embarrassments were in the rear-view mirror. The barbershops were in an uproar because the blackest of all sports, The Show, was no longer an exclusive domain. Dudes were hating, asking, How the hell could this be? But really, How couldn’t this be? Is it so unbelievable?

“It’s good for basketball to have more white guys in the sport just like it’s good for there to be a white heavyweight,” says Dr. Larry Davis, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work and Director of the School’s Center on Race and Social Problems. “It’s good because if basketball becomes a black sport rather than an American sport, it loses mainstream America. When anything is that dominant by one race, it’s just not good. Nothing has been as open to blacks in this country as sports, so everyone is used to seeing black men play and excel in sports. With white guys, what you see is the reverse. A lot of the good white players could have been Michael Jordan, but instead he’s a brain surgeon or something. The good black players play because often they have to. The good white ones have more options. Instead of working out over the summer, they can go and work for their dad. It’s selective in terms of a progression, but there is a white MJ out there. I’m sure of it.”

The problem with conditioning on this level is that it leads to untruths. It’s a slippery slope, one that people slide off of all the time. It’s coded at the subatomic level so that when you hear words like “white wash” or “playground” or “hard worker,” people don’t respond with anger. Last season, ESPN analyst Michael Irvin was amazingly reckless when discussing Cowboys QB Tony Romo’s athletic ability. “He doesn’t look like he’s that type of athlete,” Irvin said of Romo. “But he is. He is… if great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandma pulled one of them studs up out of the barn, ‘Come on in here for a second,’ you know, and they go out and work in the yard. You know, back in the day.”

Perhaps he was trying to be funny, but he ended up spouting that ignorant morsel. Or consider two years ago when former Air Force Academy head football coach Fisher DeBerry gave his opinion of why his team was struggling: “We were looking at things, like you don’t see many minority athletes in our program. It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they run extremely well.”

Interestingly enough, DeBerry took much more heat for his comments than Irvin. Which comment is most offensive? Depends on who you ask. If the Rutgers/Don Imus fiasco showed anything, it’s that context is everything.

Negative stereotypes are furthered along by many of us in the media. Take for example ESPN.com’s Bill Simmons, a white columnist who likes to use the term “white wash” when referring to an all-white basketball lineup. Simmons is not using it in a positive context; he is making fun of them. In this, he exposes a paradigm that I’ve noticed for years: White guys, by and large, like to clown white athletes, especially in basketball. It’s jarring. One second you’re laughing about the game, and then the guy you’re talking to calls someone a “shitty white boy” and comments on how slow and unathletic he is. The implication is that his lineage is holding him back. It’s a poisonous thought, because if I asked the same guy how he felt about white accountants, the response would almost certainly be the opposite.

Grayson Boucher plays for the AND 1 Mix Tape Tour under the name The Professor (an interesting name when you consider the fact that most of the other players’ names are derived from what they can do: Springs, Shane the Dribbling Machine, etc, while the one white dude on the team is named after someone with a high intellectual capacity). Even if you’re like most people and feel that the streetball principles have been diminished for the sake of commerce, the essence of what makes it interesting in the first place remains: spontaneity, dunking, slick passing, no defense and an open, freestyling type of game. It’s still looked down upon by the greater basketball community as a kid’s game, something undisciplined and too influenced by the inner-city ghettos. So for a white dude to make it big in this world, the thought would be that he would be a tall, athletic guy with hops. But The Professor has earned most of his stripes with a sick handle.