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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Race and Basketball

Slate recently posted a good article on replacing Larry Bird as the great white basketball player. Rather, it's about the seeming need to do so, and the racial subtext of looking for a replacement for him. In other words, needing another great white player. (What's the matter with Dirk Nowitzki?)

Larry Bird, in case you don't know, grew up in the small town of French Lick, Indiana, and went to Indiana State University, hardly a college basketball power. His team, however, went on to the national finals in his senior year, losing to a Michigan State team starring Magic Johnson. Bird (and Johnson) went on to have great careers in the National Basketball Association, leading, respectively, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, both great teams during their tenures with them. (By all accounts, they became good friends. Johnson, like most NBA players for the last few decades, is African-American).

I was going to see Glory Road, but never got around to it. No doubt the DVD will be out soon. This movie is, as they say, based on a real event -- an all-black team from a small college in Texas won the national championship, beating Kentucky, an all-white team (Pat Riley was a player on that team). George F. Will's column of Jan 22 (archived Jan 23) suggests that Glory Road is much too simple -- there were black players on several teams already, and the team with all blacks was highly ranked. San Francisco had won the national championship with four blacks some years earlier, for example, including Bill Russell. He's probably right. But there's still a point. There is, at least for some of us, a racial subtext to basketball. We tend to root for, or identify with, people who, more or less, look like us, and that we think are like us. Dirk Nowitzki wasn't born in the USA.

I try not to do this. Sometimes, when I succeed, I congratulate myself, and that's as bad, or worse. God help me to be truly race-blind, whether it's in basketball or the grocery store. I think that's the way it ought to be.

By the way, even in the NBA, the best teams are almost always coached by whites. (There have been, and are, some excellent African-American CEOs of NBA basketball teams.) Is that because whites are better coaches? I don't think so. At least part of it is to put a white face on a mostly black sport, I'm sure, which is not to say that, say, Rick Carlisle isn't a really good coach. But so are some blacks.

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