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Posts Tagged ‘NBA’

I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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collegebballrough

Well, March Madness is over and tonight Michigan State and North Carolina face off in the men’s college basketball championship. Every year around this time, there’s a disturbing report or two highlighting the low graduation rates of African American college athletes, particularly in the NCAA basketball programs. This year, a study by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports exposes some of the sad facts: While they excel on the court, most black players in elite college basketball programs leave college without a diploma. And it’s not just because they’re skipping out early for lucrative NBA careers. In “Got Game, But No Diploma,” a story featured today at The Root.com, once again hits us with a sobering dose of reality. Some excerpts:

If the championship in NCAA men’s basketball was based on the graduation rates of black players on the teams, it would be Duke and Villanova taking the court tonight in Detroit rather than Michigan State and the University of North Carolina….

 In general, white male student athletes graduate at 80 percent versus only 58 percent of their black teammates. That disparity represents a slight improvement over last year’s numbers which showed a 24 percent gap….

 None of the teams that made it to the Sweet 16 this year can boast a 100 percent graduation rate for its black players. Two colleges—Arizona and Gonzaga—didn’t graduate any black players at all. Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, Missouri, UNC, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Xavier graduated all of their white players….

 Some critics say that teams with especially poor graduation rates—like UConn with an overall graduation rate of 33 percent and Arizona with an overall rate of 20 percent—should not be eligible for the championship tournament….

 Michigan State had the greatest disparity in graduation rates among those Sweet 16 teams. All of its white players graduated; but only 43 percent of the black players got a diploma….

 Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University, sees the NCAA graduation numbers as just another tragic chapter in the lives of poor, black young men. “It’s like they back the bus up to the black neighborhoods, load up all the good players, then spit them out in a couple of years when they are done,” Watkins said. And when that happens, they often return to the poverty and distressed social conditions they left behind….

Debates about the treatment of African American student athletes in the big-time business of college sports will certainly continue (Should they be paid? Should they be required to stay in school longer before jumping to the NBA? Should there be greater attention paid to their academic eligibility?). But with literally billions of dollars at stake for the colleges, sponsors, TV networks, etc., I don’t anticipate anything changing soon. Still, as we’re watching those players run the court tonight in one of the biggest moneymaking sporting events of the year, I think it’s important to be mindful of these issues. Ultimately, those players are responsible for their own choices regarding their education and future success, but how complicit are we as consumers (and citizens) in enabling a system that may be doing more harm than good to the lives of these young athletes? And what, if anything, can we do to change it?

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When NBA coaches lose their jobs, it isn’t quite as shocking or gut-wrenching as when Republic Windows suddenly shuts down or AT&T lays off thousands of ordinary folks. Even so, when I heard yesterday that Philadelphia 76ers head coach Maurice Cheeks had been fired, I felt a twinge of sadness. Don’t misunderstand me; I’ve never been a big fan of the 76ers or any of the basketball teams Cheeks has coached or played for. (I’m a hopelessly devoted Bulls fan.) But Maurice Cheeks has always struck me as a humble and genuinely good man.

My respect for Maurice Cheeks increased back in 2003 when he was coaching the Portland Trailblazers. A 13-year-old girl had won the honor of singing the National Anthem before a big playoff game, but she forgot the words about halfway through. (I have to confess, I’ve never been able to successfully retain all the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” in my head either.) As the young girl stands there with the microphone shaking in her hand, clearly humiliated but not knowing how to regroup, Cheeks suddenly swoops in beside her, feeds her the lyrics, and stands there with her until she completes the song. It was a powerful moment that spoke volumes about what it means to be an American—and what it means to love your neighbor.

I’ll never forget Cheeks’s bold act of compassion and grace. I can only hope that I will have the same presence of mind to help someone in need, in the daily opportunities that I’m given to do so, the way Maurice Cheeks reached out to that young lady five years ago.

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