On Friday, March 9, 2012, the Minnesota Timberwolves played its most-anticipated game in over seven years when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol came to town. The team was 21-19, its best mid-season record since the Saunders Administration, the glamorous and championship-tested Lakers were a hot ticket, and just to fan the flames of the fiery matchup ahead, there was even buzz on Twitter that Pau Gasol might be traded to the Timberwolves over the weekend. I attended this game, and remember a palpable buzz around First Avenue during the Friday happy hour, with fans all eager to watch what promised to be a great game. Oh, and there was one more gimmick to celebrate what seemed like a momentous occasion in the franchise’s Post-Garnett Era. There would be a “whiteout” of the crowd, with white tees waiting on seats for fans to throw on in support of the home team. While a significant fraction of fans were donning purple and gold, the whiteout was there and was kind of cool to see after watching so many games in recent seasons with dead Target Center crowds.
Of course, this whiteout could not have ended worse for the Wolves. With Love sitting out with a suspension (for chest-stomping Luis Scola) the Wolves inexplicably led the Lakers the whole way, carrying a lead well into winning time and raising the hopes of the whited-out crowd that the team was on the verge of its biggest victory in years. The game’s prospects–and the season’s–were dashed when Ricky Rubio tore up his knee, ending the game and effectively ending the season. Was the whiteout a hex?
The Timberwolves off-season has seen a different “whiteout” taking place; that being the roster overhaul that could potentially leave a 10-player rotation that includes 8 white dudes. If the contracts of Roy, Stiemsma and Kirilenko are finalized, the starting lineup might be Rubio, Roy, AK-47, Love, and Pekovic. The second unit would likely be Ridnour, Shved, Budinger, Williams, and Stiemsma. I haven’t done any research on this, but I’m pretty sure 80 percent white/20 percent black is nearly the opposite of leaguewide averages. Without checking, I think there are some lineups that are entirely NOT-white. The situation in Minnesota is unusual. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Myles Brown of SLAM Magazine (and Minneapolis NBA coverage) has chimed in his share of tweets poking fun at the subject:
Ethan Strauss of HoopSpeak thinks it’s weird:
And way back on June 26, before AK-47 news, we were cracking our own whiteout jokes:
What I’ve been struggling with, mostly in the last few days, is whether the jokes should be set aside for a moment to think about what an 80 percent white NBA roster means–or what it could represent. Scratch that–I know what it represents: An anomaly. There are 29 other NBA teams with whites in the minority, and as far as I know there is nothing in the histories of Glen Taylor, David Kahn, or Rick Adelman to suggest race is a factor in player personnel decisions.
But what I’ve been thinking about is what the reaction to the white roster represents. The fact that a majority of people on a sports team is of a lighter skin tone is a punchline for some and a source of awkward discomfort for others.
Two basic questions are:
1) Why is this true?
2) Should this be true?
The simplest and most-entertaining answer to the first question can be found by watching the movie that explains it.
There’s an actual movie–I’m pretty sure it even brought home the bacon at the box office–dedicated to the notion that it’s unusual-to-the-point-of-comedy when a white guy can hang with black guys at hoops. I saw White Men Can’t Jump when I was a ten-year old who was obsessed with basketball and strongly believed black players were hands down better than whites–and more importantly, that black ballers were cooler as players than whites.
By the ripe age of eleven, I was watching Yo! MTV Raps and even tricked my dad into buying me an Onyx cassette tape (analog!) from Musicland (eds. note: Wow that was a long time ago. But Onyx was dope–it went beyond the standard “Parental Advisory” and had the always-dreaded “MUST BE 18 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER TO PURCHASE” sticker, kind of like what NC-17 is to R for movies. When my parents found out what it was I was listening to, they grounded me, took away my cable privileges, and generally made life miserable for my 11-year old self. Come to think of it, I may have had some racial identity issues as a child–ones that should have been apparent when I dressed/face-painted myself as Art Shell–the fat Raiders coach who wasn’t even cool!–for 3rd Grade Halloween. I digress.) But this movie totally hit home with me, even if I didn’t understand what most of the bedroom scenes were about. The black ballers were awesome and the white guy was a “chump.” This is how basketball is.
But this isn’t just in the movies. Larry Bird, the poster boy for what a White American Basketball Legend looks like, has talked about black supremacy in basketball. He doesn’t only believe in it, he says he was insulted when opposing coaches would let a white guy try to defend him.
“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. 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…I just didn’t want a white guy guarding me. Because it’s disrespect to my game.”
Magic Johnson weighed in:
“His game, you see, Larry Bird was the only white guy that was mentioned in the barbershop. …’Cause that’s where all the talking in our community is, the barbershop or on the playground.”
And just so there’s no confusion, Larry makes his feelings crystal clear:
“It is a black man’s game, and it will be forever. I mean, the greatest athletes in the world are African-American.”
In my own experience as a player, one story along these lines stands out. After my senior season in high school, I was barely
lucky good enough to be selected for the state’s all-star series for seniors. I was excited about this for many reasons, not the least of which being that I’d get to meet and play with the best metro players, some of which were heading to bigtime programs like the U of M, and most of whom were black. I grew up in a small town in southeastern Minnesota and rarely played with or against black players in high school.
For the all-star series, I was assigned to room with arguably the best players in my class of 2001 not-named Rick Rickert or Alan Anderson, who couldn’t play due to their participation in other (read: better) all-star games. But suffice it to say, the guys I was rooming with were really good ball players, heading big places, and were black.
They were cool guys, and we got along great. But one conversation with them has stayed with me, because it gets to the heart of the “White Men Can’t Jump” discussion. One night we got to talking about Joe Mauer, a fellow 2001’er who had been named National Player of the Year in football, was about to be drafted 1st Overall by the Minnesota Twins, and who–OH BY THE WAY–was also all-state in basketball, putting up over 20 points per on a strong Cretin-Durham Hall squad. These guys knew Mauer from way back, having played on the same traveling teams growing up, and after much time spent howling over Mauer’s recruiting trip to Florida State (the story was that Bowden didn’t let him go anywhere without at least two co-eds at his side–perhaps Ray Allen/Jesus Shuttlesworth’s experience in “He Got Game” was not hyperbole), they got to talking about what kind of basketball player Mauer was. They kept cracking up as they tried to describe it, but the bottom line was, “That Mauer cat–he quick!”
Why was this funny? Well, here’s Joe Mauer in high school:
He looked more like this guy
than this guy
And they thought this was funny. And you know what? So did I. And I still do. It is funny that a Wally Cleaver-looking white boy from Catholic school was ridiculously athletic. Some of the best humor is racial humor even when it’s as simple as, “Joe?–he quick!” I was and still am comfortable with the comedic side of white basketball players.
Returning to my two questions now: why is it funny to some, and discomfiting to others, when an NBA team has lots of white players? My best answer is actually a pretty terrible one: it just is. Some things are just funny because they’re funny. Some things make us uncomfortable “just ’cause.” That’s where this one falls.
Should it be funny? That’s a tougher question. With the Olympics underway and the 20th Anniversary of the Dream Team, there has been much discussion of the effect that team had on the globalization of great basketball. The influx of foreign-born NBA players has included some great ones–many of whom are of a lighter pigmentation. Dirk, Yao, Manu, Peja. Hell, these Whiteout Wolves are mostly not American with Ricky, Pek, Alexey Shved, AK-47 and J.J. Barea (did I leave anyone out?) coming from Spain, Montenegro, Russia and Puerto Rico. But why aren’t there more Kevin Love’s–American-born white players who star in the NBA? Is it because, as Bird says, “the greatest athletes in the world are African-American.” ??? I really don’t know. It sure seems like Bird is correct–hence the comedy discussed above. But why are white Europeans able to do so well? Those are questions for somebody smarter than me to explain.
I’ve written enough here about what should be a silly topic about a statistical anomaly. But it was bugging me, there isn’t much else to discuss, and unless Love and Pekovic are traded for Dwight Howard, the Whiteout topic isn’t going anywhere. And you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be viewed nationally as the kind of happy sports/race story that made Linsanity so magical. Quite the opposite, I suspect.
I just have one request of all people that write about sports, if any of them are out there reading this: listen to Chuck Klosterman on the B.S. Report. Klosterman put it in the context of the Joe Paterno statue, but it applies equally to discussions of race in sports.
This is the one thing…that’s always driven me especially crazy about the idiom of sports writing in that it does seem that when these situations happen in sports more than almost any other part of life there is this bizarre self-righteous reactionary treatment of them. And I’ve never understood why that is. I mean, you see it a little bit in rock criticism, but not nearly as much. You don’t see it as much in film criticism. You don’t see it that much in art criticism. Usually on that side of things, when a situation like this happens, the discussion is, “Well how does this change the way we understand the art? How does it form the way we listen to these songs, or whatever.” But in sports it’s not like that. It’s a really unlikeable quality, I think, of the sports writing world.