Andrew Cotto and Damon Young want to have an ongoing, very frank conversation about race. Here is part one.
Andrew: I’m excited about our conversation. The idea came to me when considering many of the articles submitted to the Good Men Project’s feature on race this past August. There are a lot of stories and insights and ideas out there on this important subject from a variety of media sources (and those who comment on said work of such media); my hope was to channel a couple of writers from different racial backgrounds into a ongoing dialog that creates something worthwhile through the virtue of honest conversation.
I was interested in you as the other voice in this dialog after reading your columns in the Good Men Project and then exploring the blog, which you co-author. I come to this conversation with a longstanding interest in race as an individual, a student of literature and sociology, an active citizen of the United States, and an urban resident and college professor. Also, as an author, I’ve written about race for this magazine, while both of my novels feature race as a dominant theme.
I don’t think we’ll be short of topics for discussion. Race seems to find its way into our nation’s narrative on a regular basis. With that in mind, I like your idea of starting with basketball. The NBA is a good metaphor for race in the U.S. And your suggestion coincides with my personal interest in re-engaging the league after a decade of absence. I finally have time and energy to follow professional sports again. Plus, the Nets are coming to Brooklyn next year, and I’m eager for the collective narrative it can bring to our diverse community. Basketball works for me, it’s a game I know and once loved, though I have a few admissions to make about the modern NBA.
I lost interest in the league after Michael Jordan retired. This was a mix of life circumstances (kids, career, aging gracelessly) and a commitment to Jordan that bordered on the pathological (I’ll spare you the details of my former Jordan-worship—it’s a little embarrassing). My rather tangential impression of the post-Jordan NBA is not an altogether positive one. I’m familiar with the success of Kobe, the Celtics, and last year’s Mavs. I know there are some really amazing young players, like the guard from NO, the guy on the Bulls, and that dude out in LA who has about ten ridiculous dunks a game (notice the lack of name recognition). I’m aware that Shaq has been on approximately eight teams in the past ten years, though he may, finally, be retired. I also, sadly, recognize the popular compliant of the league having been overrun by players associated with the term “Thug.” I have no solid case to defend or refute this claim, though if a therapist had me on their couch and played name-association, using the “NBA” and “thug,” the images that would come to mind are that of Allen Iverson, the Ron Artest fight with fans, the national team that crapped out in an international tournament (was Stephon Marbury involved?), tattoos, corn rows, balloon shorts, no defense, no respect, and did someone have a gun in the locker room? Are any of these guys still in the league?
This last paragraph reads like the perfect recipe for ignorance: a specific opinion formulated on a general lack of knowledge. That said, this is how the world works, at least, in part. So, how off is this impression of the modern NBA? What role, in your opinion, does race play in this impression?
Damon: I’ve spent the last 15 minutes staring at my monitor, debating if I should begin my reply with a couple of genuinely heartfelt but totally uninteresting paragraphs expressing my excitement and thanking you for reaching out or if I should forgo the perfunctory niceties and just jump right into the deep end of this racial morass we’ve agreed to create. I guess this paragraph is me bitching up and doing neither. (I am a black man, though—read: I don’t know how to swim—so toeing the waters is somewhat apropos.)
You know what? Fuck it. Let’s get in the pool.
My closest friend (a professional basketball coach in Europe) staunchly believes that a basketball fan that prefers non-NBA basketball—and “non-NBA basketball” can be anything from the WNBA to the Western Pennsylvanian Interscholastic Athletic League—to NBA basketball is secretly racist. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do agree that it’s a bit of a racial Rorschach test.
Maybe where one stands about the NBA—and why they stand there—doesn’t tell me everything I need to know about their feelings towards race, racism, racialism, post-race, racial profiling, racialicious, and Gloria Cain, but I can’t think of another single question that gives a better answer. It’s almost as if the league was intentionally created to serve as a microcosm for every single thing that contributes to and complicates any discussion about race in America:
- An entity decidedly more resonate in major cities and inherently connected to city culture (with “city culture” serving as a euphemism for “black culture,” “liberal culture,” and any other red state buzzword boogieman)? Check!
- A multi-billion dollar industry without any relevant white American talent? Check!
- The major sport where, from a physical perspective, its average participant has the least in common with the average American (you probably personally know a few non-famous people who could pass as doppelgangers for Drew Brees or Hines Ward or even Tom Brady. You do not know any non-famous people who favor Shaquille O’Neal or Lebron James)? Check!
- A game played relatively equipment free (no hats, helmets, shoulder pads, etc.,) in front of a relatively intimate audience (it’s the only major sport where a fan could literally reach out and touch a player), a quirk allowing the audience a certain intimacy/closeness that occasionally forces them to see and think about things they’d just rather not? Check!
Anywho, to (finally) answer your first question, before the lockout came and took a drunk trucker at Waffle House-sized shit on everything, the NBA was experiencing a renaissance. Not since the late 80’s has there been such a bevy of legitimately skilled (and marketable) talent, and this fact was reflected in both the quality of play and the (drastically increased) ratings. I’ve been a die-hard NBA basketball fan for 25 years (Yes, this means I was a die-hard fan when I was seven years old), and I can’t remember a season with as many exciting games, compelling players, and complex story lines. This wasn’t just a “let’s all watch the South Beach freak show” boon either. The league has been on an upward swing for half a decade now (until, of course, the lockout came and took a drunk trucker at Waffle House-sized shit on everything).
Yet, despite the fact that some truly great basketball was being played by some truly great basketball players, you have a large segment of the sports populace whose only feelings towards the NBA are disgust, disdain, and anger that some people actually aren’t disgusted and disdained by it. I know it’s probably not the best idea to use the comments attached to ESPN articles to make a point, but the NBA is the only sport where people enter conversations about it just to talk about how much they hate it.
I realize this is much more complicated than just branding everyone who feels this way as racist. Sports fans are obsessed with nostalgia, and it’s not a leap to suggest that some people just don’t think that the stars of today hold a candle to the Magics and Birds and Barkleys they grew up idolizing. Also, for the first few years after Jordan’s last retirement (that stint with the Wizards never happened), NBA basketball, well, sucked. Teams were over-coached; there was a talent void, and defenses had become more sophisticated than the offenses, all resulting in unwatchable games with scores like 66 to 62 and 72 to 59.
Most importantly, many of the star players—Iverson, Sprewell, Rasheed Wallace, etc.—carried themselves on and off the court with an attitude reminding people of the worst aspects of black America. This image—of Iverson holding press conferences rocking bling weighing more than he does, of an influx of unskilled 18-year-olds (Darius Miles, Kwame Brown, etc.,) commanding multi-million dollar salaries, of giant black men charging the stands and fighting the audience (an event that remains the single most memorable thing I’ve ever seen live)—is what much of America still thinks of when thinking of the NBA. Joe Sports Fan turns on a game today, sees 10 black men with tattoos, and automatically assumes that nothing has changed.
What does race of to do with this false perception? For factors I mentioned earlier, the NBA has always been a racial petri dish. And the level of animus many still hold toward the league and its players is an example of certain segments of white America’s refusing to give the NBA athlete the benefit of the doubt. Instead of being assessed on their own merit, they’re being judged by people still rocking 1999 goggles—“fans” who think “black guy” + “tattoo” + “basketball” = “uneducated and unskilled thug.”
This is where I’m supposed to end this response with an assignment, asking you to watch an NBA game tonight with an open mind. The lockout is now over, but the lingering stench from the drunk trucker at Waffle House-sized shit means that there won’t be any games until Christmas day. I’ve decided to drown my “no NBA until December fucking 25th” sorrows in alcohol, and I’d like for you to join me. What are you drinking?
Andrew: That’s terrific insight and the first metaphor I’ve come across of the drunk trucker-Waffle House-shit variety. I may need to work that into my next novel. Your points are well-taken about the perception of the NBA, its origins and realities; though I don’t see much hope in expecting people, from any segment of any populace, giving other people the “benefit of the doubt.” I believe minds are changed through observing consistent behavior, and that makes the resurrected NBA season so welcome. I’ll look forward to following the upcoming NBA season from the perspective we’ve established here. In the meantime, per your request, I’ll be drowning my “no NBA until December fucking 25th” sorrows in some Johnny Walker Red leftover from Thanksgiving (thanks, Uncle Steve). By the way, I agree that the Jordan-Wizards-thing never happened, and who the hell should I root for until the Nets arrive in Brooklyn next season? Anybody but the Knicks, please.
As far as next topic goes, allow me to suggest an assignment, with its possibly caustic phrasing, that is relevant to what we’ve discussed already with regard to an image that represents the worst of black America:
What is the inspiration and meaning (if any) of “Thug Couture?”
Andrew Cotto is a teacher & writer who lives in Brooklyn, NY. His coming-of-age novel, THE DOMINO EFFECT, is now available on Amazon.com. Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery will be released in 2012 by Ig Publishing. Learn more about Andrew at his website, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter @andrewcotto.
Pittsburgh native Damon Young (aka “The Champ”) is the co-founder ofVerySmartBrothas.com. Their first book Your Degrees Won’t Keep You Warm At Night: The Very Smart Brothas Guide To Dating, Mating and Fighting Crime is available at Amazon.com.