Last August, I did an interview with Basil Anastassiou, co-creator of an upcoming documentary called "Ballin' At The Graveyard: A story about life and pickup basketball at one American park." The documentary is still in the editing phase, but several preview clips are available at the official Web site.
The latest clip describes how race plays out at the Graveyard. Which, as Basil put it in an e-mail to me, can be described thusly: "The State of America in 2008: A Black man may finally become President, but white guys (like me) still have to fight for their rights on the court (No justice, No peace!)." Here's the clip.
These sentiments basically mirror what Dennis Rodman said in his 1997 autobiography Bad As I Wanna Be: "When you talk about race in basketball, the whole thing is simple: A black player knows he can go out on the court and kick a white player's ass." It just so happens I'm a white guy who's played a lot of pickup ball over the years. And yeah, that seems to be the prevailing attitude, from north to south, from coast to coast. [SHOCK ALERT!!] Black men see basketball as a black man's game. What's more, white men see it that way, too.
For instance, my pickup league is predominantly white (although we do have some black and Asian players). Every so often, a new black player will show up, and you can see a lot of the white guys immediately getting nervous. Not because they're afraid of them as a threat to their personal safety. It's because they automatically assume that the black player -- any black player -- is better than them, is going to dominate them, is going to upset the fragile balance of talent in the league...in short, that he is going to embarrass them.
Here's a true story involving Evil Ted. One week when our normal pickup league was on a break, we returned to another league we had frequented back in the day. This league was high on physical play but rather low on talent, so ET was anticipating a big night (read that: he was ready to score at will while resting liberally on defense). Right before play started, a couple athletic-looking black men showed up. ET groaned and said: "Great. And here I thought it was going to be an easy night."
The funny thing is, turns out neither of them were very good. They were aggressive and talked a lot of trash -- which intimidated some of the other players -- but they couldn't shoot and seemed disinclined to play defense. (Like I always say, in pickup ball defense is just waiting to get back on offense.) In short, they were on par with just about everybody else there, except that their skin was a little darker.
Still, ET expected them to be good. Better than good, actually. He expected them to shoot lights out and dunk. (Yes, many white guys naturally assume that all black men can dunk, despite a great deal of anecdotal evidence to the contrary.) He expected them to dominate. And you could tell they kind of expected it to.
I run into this all the time. Fortunately for me, I happen to be a white boy who can play (although, much like Larry Bird, I couldn't jump over two sheets of paper). My buddy Statbuster (who, as it happens, is black) has often referred to me as "a 6'3" Dirk Nowitzki," but personally I model myself after Matt Harpring (just being realistic here). Anyway, a few months back I was idly shooting around at my gym when a black teen, probably a senior in high school or maybe a freshman in college, showed up with his girlfriend. As they approached, I heard him kind of chuckle and say to her, "Watch me school this white guy."
I won't bore you with the details, but it didn't happen. Mostly because I play brutal defense (which is rare in pickup ball and even more rare in one-on-one) and because I was bigger, stronger and much more experienced than he was. After he lost the first game 11-2, he immediately challenged me to a rematch, promising "I'm gonna play you this time." (And it's true; he had played rather lackadaisically.) I won the next game 11-4 and now he was becoming visibly frustrated. After I beat him 11-2 again in the third game -- during which he was totally winded -- he just stared at me for few seconds and said, "Damn. You can really play!"
And while he didn't say it, I knew what he meant: He had assumed I couldn't. Because I was white.
Just like the players at the Graveyard like bustin' white guys, I like bustin' black guys. And as with them, it's more a matter of pride than anything else. That's the nature of the game: Someone is trying to take something from you, and you're trying to take something from them. But the sport of basketball is like an onion. There are many layers to it, games within the game. Not every victory -- nor every loss -- is created equal. We weigh or opponents based on size, strength, skill level, experience, and a million other variable that, yes, include race. And based on those unspoken (and maybe only semi-conscious) measurements, we are better able to measure ourselves and judge our approximate worth. Which is just one small part of how we understand the world around us and our place in it.
I'm not an anthropologist, and I don't have a degree in any social sciences, so I'm not trying to make some grand or profound statement on race and basketball. Just thinking in print.