I used to spend a lot of time watching and thinking about professional basketball, a sport that colonized my hippocampus around the age of 5 because I grew up in Chicago when Michael Jordan was at his prime, which was sort of like discovering Superman is real and he also has a restaurant downtown. My interest in the Bulls, whom he memorably led to six championships, tailed off around his retirement and the front office’s subsequent decimation of the roster, but picked up a few years later in the mid-’00s when shrewd drafting and the modest gains of concentrated player development miraculously created a sprightly and likable team that was actively competitive every night — all I ask from an organization funded somewhat by my taxes. Not long after, the Steve Nash Suns lit up the league, LeBron came into his own, and I started attending a Big 10 university which was like placing an ad in the classifieds reading “If you are a man, talk at me about whether Tracy McGrady is better than Carmelo Anthony, and also if you’re going to that party at Pike tonight.”
Caring excessively about basketball sort of constituted an identity, though not one I’m fond of. One social benefit of expertise is conversational comfort — if you know a lot about K Records, you’re probably going to be just fine at the party of middle-aged Caucasian music critics — but sports are hilariously popular, and people are exceedingly comfortable at spouting off about hilariously popular things regardless of how much they really know. Professing an interest in basketball was an informal invitation for anyone to talk to me about basketball, and very quickly the conversation would turn combative. What often manifests when people start talking about sports with each other — and not to rely on a gender stereotype, but let’s just admit it’s broadly (though not exclusively, fine, there’s your caveat) true: especially if they are men — is a kind of transitive competition, in which arguing the particulars about whether T-Mac is better than Melo ends up becoming a referendum on whether I am better than you, because I have scoured over Basketball Reference pages and YouTube compilations and moreover I was there when T-Mac scored 13 in 33 seconds and placed top 5 in the MVP voting despite playing for one of the shittiest Orlando Magic teams you could ever imagine and [insert your referential ephemera here]. So don’t tell me about Melo, bitch.
While there’s nothing better than making a stranger feel like a real asshole for thinking Kobe was better than Jordan, it didn’t take long to feel weird about what this presumptive expertise sprawled to include. You do not have to direct a movie to critique a movie, but basketball is a culturally Black sport played by comically well-coordinated human beings whose exterior and inner lives are vastly different than mine, an unathletic biracial nerd requiring at least 15 minutes of mechanical fine-tuning before he can reliably hit the rim when attempting to shoot a basketball. My hangups increased the more I took in about the league, the more I felt comfortable assuming I knew. When my fandom was cresting at the turn of the decade, the text-based NBA analysis I consumed loosely fell into two camps: writing like Zach Lowe, the senior writer at Grantland who ran further with the sabremetric-driven approach patented by his ESPN predecessor John Hollinger; writing like FreeDarko, the cult basketblog where clever writers free associated about what someone like Russell Westbrook really represented, in a cultural sense.
I read all of these writers and websites avidly, as well as the dozens of writers and websites they spawned in their wake, most of which were bluntly not as good. Lowe was a stat nerd, but he always (or at least I thought) approached the game with a humanistic perspective, never forgetting that these were real human beings playing a game at a level he could break down, but never fully master. By comparison, some of his peers (and certainly many of his tribute acts) wrote about basketball like they were proving a point, readily chiding a player for taking too many of that kind of shot, for seeming unmotivated in the wrong sense. Meanwhile their analogues in the FreeDarko school of thought often approached their subjects with mirth and irony, but the lesser adherents spiraled off too far into the pot-perfumed ether, attempting to costume every event with a cosmic profundity that unfortunately not even an intelligent person could consistently invent.
There was lots of wonderful writing from this era that I’d link to if we had all day, but the worst of it presumed too much. One side seemed to really believe that someone like them — by the demographics, overwhelmingly white college-educated men — could understand the game (as in, how to play it) better than the professionals. The other side seemed to really believe that someone like them — by the demographics, overwhelmingly white college-educated men likely to be accused of being a hipster at some point in their life — could understand the game (as in, what it meant) better than the professionals.
Individually there were plenty of exceptions, and by no means does someone’s identity preclude them from achieving authority in a subject that doesn’t speak directly to their lived experience, provided they approach it with the right humility and empathy and self-awareness and thoroughness and what have you. But in the aggregate I began to see the duller, less imaginative writing as an insistent whiteness paving over the game’s inherent Blackness, claiming dominion over a territory that was very much not their own. An attitude like “well, I’ve done the work, I’ve put in my time, I’m nice and I’m smart and most importantly I’m down, so let me just put my feet up and riff for a while.” A similar thing could be found in rap writing, where studied white experts like Sasha Frere-Jones (an intelligent critic whose bonafides far surpass my own, who I’m nonetheless about to poke at a little) somehow felt comfortable enough to wonder in the pages of The New Yorker if hip-hop was dead.
All of this was on my mind when I read a recent piece at the New York Review of Books by Jay Caspian Kang, reviewing a new book by veteran writer Scoop Jackson about how power, politics, and Blackness intersect in the NBA. Here’s a salient paragraph that I imagine pinned more than a few readers to the cork:
For its non-Black, liberal fans, basketball exists in a sort of triple consciousness. They love basketball in part because it allows them access to Blackness. This, however, comes with guilt and discomfort, which gets processed into a monolithic and easily accessible politics of what these days is called “allyship,” which then needs to be codified and rubberstamped by the esteemed white men who know the players the best. [San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg] Popovich and [Golden State Warriors coach Steve] Kerr serve as models for white allies. Underlying all this is a pressing need to understand Black people.
And here’s Kang describing his own experience at Grantland, which speaks a little more directly to what I’ve mused about above:
When I worked for Simmons at the now defunct sports and pop-culture website Grantland, we published a lot of basketball analytics writing. Part of our project was also “celebrating” the NBA through an obsessive coverage of “silly” players like JaVale McGee, Nick Young, and J.R. Smith, who became lovable antiheroes. Every lascivious Instagram post, every tweet that read as “street,” every boneheaded play in a game was converted into smirking content. Everyone in the editorial office, save me, was white. I don’t think we acted out of malice, but the intent, at least subconsciously, was to create two points of access for ourselves, and, by extension, our audience of mostly white, mostly educated sports enthusiasts. First, we wanted to be the best analytics site on the Internet. Second, we wanted to “humanize” the league through a meme parade. We were desperately trying to wring our work through the hope, however misguided, that we could justify our own place in a Black sport. What Jackson understands is that the entire structure of professional basketball—whether ownership, marketing from the shoe companies, or self-conscious coverage of an overwhelmingly white sports media—is just a variation on that same ungainly attempt.
What I’m thinking about is the moment when an approach grounded in humility and empathy and self-awareness and thoroughness and what have you — the ongoing justification of one’s place in a Black sport — curdle into an assumptive “well, whatever” that allow one to ignore delicacy, and say what they really just think. Maybe it’s as simple as a white critic insisting that Allen Iverson wasn’t really that good, despite his obvious importance to the culture. Maybe it’s a white critic smugly claiming the NBA needs to be less political if it wants to attract more fans, ignoring the very real emotions that might prod its players to be political. Maybe it’s a white critic sneering at the intervention of Barack Obama during the NBA’s recent playoff strike, urging them to get back on the court in order to make their voice better heard.
The recent intersection of Obama and the NBA irritated a lot of open wounds. Obama has, in the years since leaving office, become an easy target for the left, who’ve pointed out the many flaws of his administration and how they unwittingly set the steps for Trump to take power. That’s true; with the benefit of hindsight he erred quite a bit, and the chasm between what he promised and what he delivered is what radicalized me, to participate in a Twitter meme. It’s also impossible to discuss his failures without discussing the all-encompassing reality of anti-Blackness up and down national politics that have, over the last 12 years, fully pivoted the modern GOP toward the Southern Strategy, wherein they literally just admitted they wanted to deny Obama everything by nature of who he was.
Obama’s conciliatory and mediating nature ended up being his giant weakness; you cannot concede anything to fundamentally unreasonable people, and his role in getting the NBA back to work was an uncomfortable parallel for his administration. The players were on the cusp of potentially transformative action… and he cautioned them to be more pragmatic, at the moment when doubling down would’ve wrenched us into truly unforeseen territory. It was disappointing, and also obviously what was going to happen in this scenario, which made it even more disappointing.
There’s a cynical line of thought that I’ve discussed with some of my non-white leftist friends, which is that some white leftists try to ignore some blunt realities of race in because it allows them to dig a foothold into a discourse where they really don’t have much purchase, instead of just quieting down for a while. They want to hear what people of color think, of course… but only if they share the same thoughts, and are ready to arrive at the same conclusions. Our examples are too anecdotal to codify into any kind of essayistic theory — this is more of a temperamental condition than a political one, inherent to our human need to feel like the protagonist in all situations — and of course it doesn’t mean we didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders, but it’s a vibe in the air we can pick up once it’s there.
For example: LeBron was worth signal boosting for his role in the boycott, until he suddenly wasn’t, at which point he was easily condescended to for buying into whatever Obama had to say. At the same time, obviously his decisions deserved criticism, and it would be equally condescending to give him a free pass. But it’s tricky. Agreeing to disagree is just what adults do, but in an emotionally pitched atmosphere — the internet chiefly, but anywhere you might imagine in our current environment — where every action seems magnificently consequential, the space for “well, I don’t see it that way” quickly crumbles. The claws come out; the insults get meaner; every argument becomes a referendum on something else. We’re once again arguing about sports, except the subtextual stakes feel much higher.
Most fundamentally, the players made their decision, and all of us — white, Black, Asian, Latinx, otherwise — on the outside can only live with that. That’s how everything in sports works, really, rendering much of the commentariat effectively moot. I’ve continued to watch the NBA playoffs, which have been intermittently dazzling even if the nature of their happening right now is fundamentally screwed up, and I’ve felt pleasure in ignoring all sorts of the analysis I used to consume a decade ago. Maybe these in-game adjustments matter, maybe LeBron has a chance to further stake his legacy… maybe the most honest thing is just to admit I’m watching a game I’ll never really understand, despite all the expertise I might cultivate. I’m a fan, and these are professionals. It’s a topic of discussion for me, and real life for them — as it is elsewhere, in many words beyond basketball.