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.

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13 Comments:
Anonymous The Shiv said...
You think it's hard being a 6'3" white guy? Try being a 5'6" Indian guy.

Being the underdog isn't all bad though. It's good for an easy 5-8 points (depending on your scoring system) every time. Two threes will make the other guy respect your shot and you can get atleast one easy lay-up from him being too eager to close out.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
LOL reminds me of my friend who played in an organized league

I was like 6 and my friend was like 5 10 at the time

played a pickup game talked trashed against me at the beginning (I don't play that much) pretty much locked him down after that.

I only go 100% if someone likes to talk too much

Blogger Kevin said...
I guess it's a little different here in Canada when I play pick up at my university gym. Everyone here plays some pretty tough D (excluding the people who don't really know how to play basketball), and sure there are some talented black guys here but even better white and asian players too. Makes you rethink your preconceptions of how skill is race-determined

Anonymous AK Dave said...
I used to have a Kenyan roommate in college- Pete. We called him "Pistol" for obvious reasons. We would go to the courts with him- a 6'4" DARK black dude, and people would cringe. He LOOKED like he could cram on a 12" rim and tear the head off of a baby elephant. Scary, intense-looking guy with a really cut-up, chiseled physique.

Thing was- he SUCKED. Not just "sorta bad" or "had holes in his game"- he SUCKED. Like, dribble-with-two-hands sucked. Lifted one leg back like an 8 year-old girl while taking a "shot" sucked. Man it was funny.

Point is, basketball- like running, swimming, golf, rapping, and the mens locker room- proves that stereotypes are pretty much a lot of BS.

Blogger ChrisH said...
i got put in the freshman dorm where everybody was sent who was late with their housing applications, for whatever reason I had a lot of black neighbors. so when we played freshman intra murals i thought we'd be set, but all of them stunk. We still started four black guys and me though for intimidations purposes.

also in math classes, I always felt extra proud when i beat the asian guy (who took notes on his laptop) on quizes, tests etc.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I love the idea of race dynamics in pick up ball being explored. You could write a world class thesis at my local Y, where young teens white and black, older european men, and a hand ful of asian/indians clash.

I hear you shiv on being the 5'6 indian guy. I personally think we get even less respect than the white dudes.

Blogger Wild Yams said...
Prepare yourselves for an obscure reference...

Someone should dig up the scene from the movie Carbon Copy where George Segal tries to hustle a white father/son team on a basketball court with his black son, Denzel Washington, only to find out that Denzel's character is miserable at basketball and they end up getting schooled.

Blogger 80's NBA said...
Great post.

I started playing young, and there were a lot of black kids in the area, so I guess you could say I grew up getting used to the mix of different folks and it never affected me.

Later, when I was in high school, our basketball team was all white guys, and not the farm-boy, tough dude type. Most were the dorky, preppy type. Whenever we played teams that were mostly black, you could see it in my teammates eyes that they were scared shitless. Even when a lot of the black kids on the other team were not that good, my teammates had already psyched themselves out, and we would lose by 20 (at least). I still get pissed thiking about those pussies I had as teammates. I had a long, painful high school basketball career.

And like you, I found out that the black guys would seem to play just a little harder when I was out there. And it never bothered me one bit. Some of the greatest times I ever had playing basketball were pickup games in those situations. Once you held your own, they respected you, even wanted you on their team when sides were chosen again (especially if you were a good passer). That was a good feeling and it reminds me of something Larry Bird said a couple of years ago. He said that whenever a white dude guarded him in a game, he wanted to punish the white boy because he was offended that the opposing coach wouldn't have a black guy guard him.

Anonymous james said...
man i am really interested in this documentary. i think u and me are similar, im a 6-0 asian guy and i pride myself on defense and when i first show up to the park, people don't want me on their team.

while matching up before the game starts, i always pick the fastest, blackest guy on the court and usually, more times than not, i stay with him and force him into some bad shots, and usually block the shit out of him when he does a cross over and expects me to get lost or fall down. the court proceeds to ooh and ahh and i feel cool.

i dont do it cuz i hate black people (which i dont), i do it cuz everyone expects the worst out of me cuz im asian.

Anonymous Don Paco said...
Fantastic post. It's incredibly hard to talk about race in America without the conversation getting way out of hand - but this post does it.

I had a lot of comments to add to the discussion - but I've just deleted all of them. It's really hard to talk race without seeming either racist or ultra-politically correct. I don't have the skills the find the right words, so I'm not gonna try.

Race is a huge issue in basketball and everywhere else in American life - thanks for a well written post about it.

Anonymous Brandon Hoffman said...
"Just like the players at the Graveyard like bustin' white guys, I like bustin' black guys."

So do I.

And there's absolutely nothing racist about that. I know that most black guys think they're going to ball on me. That makes it even better.

And I don't blame most of the those black men who think they're going to ball on me. Basketball is a game that is dominated by black people.

Larry Bird used to think it was an insult for an opposing coach to assign a white guy to stop him.

Look it up Matt. That would make an excellent part II to this blog.

Anonymous Mike B said...
the shiv - did you live in Houston at one point?

Anonymous tradebait said...
It's funny. I'm a 6'4 skinny black guy and I have no preconceived ideas of most players out there. I think it comes from the fact that I actually get the same treatment from my "people". I'm in grad school @USF and when I first went to the court last august I couldn't get a run on the majority black court, so I would play with the "others" (some white, asian, indian, black hispanic) on court two. The talent was generally less but not as much as the guys on both courts thought(I'm that rare guy who plays on both courts). The black guys eventually discovered I was fast, defend any player of any size, and I am the best rebounder there since in the best conditions I can almost kiss the rim. So you guys may not know but we black guys do it to each other too, story of my life.

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