Doug Zeigler reflects on a movie that he loves and his experiences on a basketball court that gave him a small window into how racism feels.
Over 20 years ago, Sidney Deene told Billy Hoyle, “Billy, listen to me. White men. Can’t. Jump.” I remember this being a fairly controversial movie at the time, even though that was the prevailing belief on the courts of Harrisburg where I was playing daily back then. As a skinny white kid from rural farm land Pennsylvania who LOVED playing basketball, I was reminded of this movie quote almost every time I played in the city. But this was far from the first time I’d been put down in my sanctuary, a basketball court.
I was at a basketball camp at Bucknell University, 15 years old, and trying like hell to not be intimidated by the other campers. All I could think of is how I’m from a podunk little high school of 400 kids. Not 400 kids in my class; 400 kids in my entire high school. How can I compete with other players who come from schools with thousands of students? But really what I was frightened of was playing against black kids. Playing and excelling against rural white kids is one thing, but playing against black kids from urban areas scared the shit out of me. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up or compete. In general, basketball players from where I was from had things that were more important than basketball to them. Duties on their family’s farm, hunting, fishing, chasing girls, drinking. I’d read time and time again about how children from inner cities spent so much time on basketball courts. How it becomes their escape from their difficult circumstances. Their sanctuary. Just like me.
When I had that little revelation at camp, I settled down a little bit. I was still intimidated, but I wasn’t going to let anyone else see that. As luck would have it, my first match-up in a game situation at Bucknell camp was Willie. I’d seen Willie play on the first day. He was fast. REALLY fast. Confident and fluid like I hadn’t seen in person before. He had inner city roots. And he was black.
Whispers around camp were that Willie was friends with Grant Hill, who played in the same area in Virginia as he did. That he was impossible to stay in front of. That he was being recruited already by division one schools. That he could slay dragons and cause kings to heel. Ok, maybe not that last one. But he seemed super human to me already, and I was getting ready to guard him.
I lined up against him at the jump ball, just me, my fear, and my underlying need to prove myself. Tip went to the other team; they immediately gave the ball to Willie. His first smack talk as he dribbled close to me: “You can’t guard me, whitebread.” Mentally I was taken aback, but I stayed in front of him. I’d always been a scorer, but my mission this game was to prove that I belong on that court. I needed to shut him down. To this day, 28 years later, I haven’t played that great a defensive game. I held Willie to 10 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds. He had averaged 19 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds per game the previous season on varsity for his school the previous season. And this scrawny wide-eyed farmer white kid had stymied him, made him work for every stat he earned. I saw him at dinner that night in the mess hall, he looked me dead in the eye and said “Great game, Doug.” I didn’t even think he’d have known my name, but he just paid me the highest compliment possible. I was on cloud nine.
Throughout the years, I’ve been called all manner of insults by other basketball players who aren’t white, even by some semi-famous athletes, by random chance of being on a basketball court with them. Honky. Whitebread. Casper. Ghost. Kike. I can clearly recall the way I felt inferior. How demeaned and insecure I felt in a place that felt like home to me. How I was less than a person when those barbs were thrown my way.
It gave a very brief glimpse into what it’s like everyday for almost everyone who’s different than me. I felt small and insignificant in those fleeting moments. Like I didn’t belong, and I need to prove that I did. It opened up window for me that I hadn’t had before, which was a view of what it is like to be anything but caucasian.
I will never know what it’s like to be anything other than white. I can certainly never know how it feels to have almost every part of my existence examined and scrutinized like a black man does. Or a Hispanic person. Or an Asian person. Or an Indian person. What I can say is that even in that small world of basketball, which was ever my escape mechanism, I was made to feel small and inadequate by these derogatory terms. I cannot fathom how hard it must be to fight those sorts of insults in all my daily travels in life. It must be exhausting. I admire those that can and do fight racism in any facet. And my pasty white, basketball-playing, farmer-boy-upbringing ass will be standing next you, hoping I can in some small way help show that all people are truly equal.
Sidney and Billy work together on the court to help each other out despite their differences. It’s a nice little bow to tie on the ending, which is how Hollywood likes their movie endings. This is real life which rarely has those fancy little bows to put on things, especially anything as dicey as race. But my hand is out, extended to those who want it, to fight for equality for all.
Just don’t ask me to dunk.