Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Race, Tribalism and Basketball


In an article for the online magazine, Slate, former NBA player, Paul Shirley, currently in the Spanish pro league, recounts the lonliness of the white American basketball player.

Though he makes a great living playing ball in “the second-best basketball league in the world”, Shirley complains about the racism that he has encountered in the NBA. He believed other players didn’t respect his game specifically because he was white.

Of course, Shirley is not best known for his basketball skills. According to his listing in Wikipedia, Shirley’s biggest claim to fame was the online diary he kept as the Phoenix Suns’ twelfth man on their 2004-2005 playoff run, and the blog he writes for He was cut at the end of that season, and failed to make the Minnesota Timberwolves roster at the beginning of this season. Ironically, Shirley mentioned the $10 million, 5-year contract of white Timberwolf Mark Madsen as the reason he was released.

Paul Shirley offers an interesting perspective on what life is like as a racial minority. White Americans currently make up only 6 percent of NBA players (75 percent are African-Americans and 19 percent are foreigners). Though the winners of the last three MVP titles are of European descent, they aren’t white Americans (two-time winner Steve Nash is Canadian and this year’s MVP, Dirk Nowitski, is German). According to Shirley, this is a problem for white American men who aren’t believed to be as talented as Black and foreign players.

…when the average white American male tunes into TNT sometime between October and June, he would very much like to see another average white American male on the basketball court. Most of the time, he doesn’t. But in the few situations that he does, he is going to root for that player. That’s the way it is. We like to see people who look like us succeed.

Hall of Famer Larry Bird raised some controversy a few years ago when he made similar statements. Bird believed that more white superstars would improve the game’s outreach because the largest audience for the sport is white American men. But Bird expressed the same prejudices that Shirley complains about, calling it a sign of “disrespect” to be guarded by a white player.

The one thing that always bothered me when I played in the NBA was I really got irritated when they put a white guy on me,” Bird said. “I still don’t understand why. A white guy would come out (and) I would always ask him: ‘What, do you have a problem with your coach? Did your coach do this to you?’ And he’d go, ‘No,’ and I’d say, ‘Come on, you got a white guy coming out here to guard me; you got no chance.’ … For some reason, that always bothered me when I was playing against a white guy. As far as playing, I didn’t care who guarded me — red, yellow, black,” Bird added. “I just didn’t want a white guy guarding me. Because it’s disrespect to my game.

Players like Bird, Nash and Nowitski are well respected because of their games. And how many times have we heard TNT commentator, Charles Barkley, diss Black players like Eric Snow or Damon Jones because of their lack of game.

But we shouldn’t pretend that race doesn’t matter in basketball. Who can forget Bill Walton’s gushing remarks after Nash’s first MVP victory. The former center beamed with thinly-veiled racial pride as he expressed his delight that intellect and savvy were still valued in a game that is “dominated by the most physically gifted people on the planet,” as if many of those “physically gifted players” don’t have intellect and savvy.

A recent study by University of Pennsylvania professor and a Cornell University grad student suggested that white referees - especially when they are on all-white officiating teams - called fouls at a greater rate against Black players than against white players, but the NBA and most players reject that contention. “If that’s going on, then it’s something that needs to be dealt with,” former Detroit Piston and current Timberwolf Michael James said. “But I’ve never seen it.” Certainly this is a dubious claim because the league is so dominated by Black players, it would be very difficult to find meaningful numbers to substantiate this.

The rise of foreign ballers has increased the number of players in the league with white skin at least. Nash, Nowitski and Lithuanian Zydrunas Ilgauskas are among the games all-stars. Argentines Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino beat the US team during the last Olympics and have flouished in the NBA. But these players are considered Latino, and don’t qualify as white, at least not in Shirley’s book.

When it comes down to it, most of the tribalism that occurs among sports fans has more to do with team loyalties than race. “I root for the players who play for the Detroit Pistons, and for those who went to the University of Michigan,” said University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, in response to Shirley’s Slate article. “These are tribal allegiances from my youth. But I don’t root for players who look like me, if for no other reason that there are no NBA players who look like me, at least on any scale of likeness I find meaningful.”

And looking at the bright side, if Paul Shirley spends as much time working on his game during the off season as he does writing blogs and complaining about racism, he just might find himself back on an NBA roster. Like many careers that mechanical engineering major Shirley could have chosen, he may be judged by his skin color in the NBA. Unlike many of his options, his success in that field is determined by his personal results: his points, his rebounds, his defense. The basketball court is a level playing field where you can dispel any disrespect that you perceive by putting the ball through the net.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

The "race" of Manu Ginobili and Carlos Delfino exposes the preposterousness of the "latino" label as a race label. These are white guys with Spanish last names, the descendants of Europeans who brought over African slaves and slaughtered the American Indians. Unless either of these guys claim descendancy from any of those Indians or slaves, they are as much honkies as "white" folks in the US with the last names of Johnson and Taylor.

And by the way: that study of racism in NBA officiating showed a discrepancy of less than one foul per game.

I find it no more "racism" to seek more cracker players to attract more cracker audience members than it is to seek more black coaches. In either case are standards getting lowered appreciably?

Meanwhile, white folks served by all-black home teams continue enthusiastic support against opponents featuring honkey starters. Cleveland features two honkey starters, and the Pistons zero. Are the supposedly "racist" honkey Detroit suburbanites rooting for Cleveland?

I am, I admit, and for racist reasons: Cleveland has a black coach.

June 01, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

I can't count the number of times that black player Tim Duncan gets called "intelligent" by honkey broadcasters, including Bill Walton. And I believe that this word has persistently been applied to the all-black Pistons starters, with the exception of Rasheed, who gets called "intelligent" except that he occasionally "flakes out", like when he left Robert Hory open in game 6 of their failed attempt at a repeat two years ago.

I think that lots of black players get called intelligent. Although even that leaves open the charge of racism, "as if black folks aren't intelligent." For people determined to find racism, there's always an excuse to do so... even in a league dominated by black players at a rate about 5 times their rate of the general population.

I do perceive real racism in the executive suites, including coaching staff, though. Only racism can explain why in a league comprise 75% of blacks, how 75% of the coaches and other exects aren't black. But it appears that is changing.

June 01, 2007 1:36 PM  

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