And you thought watching sports was innocuous. How could it be? Savagery’s long been our best bet at crowding our toughest thoughts out of the brain, so when you’re yelling LET’S GO and WIN IT ALL and GET THE BALL at the bar after you’ve had a few, that’s all fine and well. But if you’re like most fans of basketball, it’s just also the case that you’re not typically thinking about whether you’re watching the largest, most indelible symbol of systematic racial oppression in America—but you are. Or so says David J. Leonard, approximately, in this startlingly thorough scope of zeitgeist, for the western nation so sprawling and divided it can hardly be called one.
Michael Jordan—and the media dream that was the druggy socio-political cloud, which some argue made Barack Obama’s presidency much, much more possible—diverted the division between all citizens so well that the NBA was left in a stupefied hangover of brand identity for years after his final championship triumph in Utah. What this eventually amounted to was the realization that (despite the mega-billions effort to convince otherwise) the NBA is made up of a bunch of black guys. Fine and well, on its face—but before Magic and Larry and MJ’s games and David Stern’s pointed PR savvy took America by storm for two decades, the NBA being a bunch of black guys was certainly not okay with most Americans. Just ask Bill Russell, the greatest competitor Boston ever had, an eleven-time champion as player and coach; he’s hardly even welcome back or remembered in Celticsland, after ruling the NBA in the 1960s.
Leonard emboldens the strange paradise of Jordan by marking the decline of league appreciation in his absence, and the growing public disdain for players rich with social markers thought to be unsavory—baggy clothes, do-rags, cornrows, an affinity for hip-hop. And never mind that the sport of hockey actually cheers when the players throw their punches; these big African Americans with their burgeoning sense of identity lost an incredible amount the moment they had one brawl in 2004 in Detroit. The central event of Leonard’s narrative, this instance of fisticuffs was America’s stark reminder of how they felt about the NBA before the “golden years”; before Michael’s era of concealed identity.
And what follows is Leonard’s history of Stern’s illustrative PR downfall. Once thought to be a liberal New York reformer, the commissioner is exposed here as a profits-concerned guardian of the white patriarchy. Subsequently, a profound infantilization of grown-men millionaires took place. A racially charged dress code was installed, college was made compulsory, and there was a huge crackdown on verbal infractions. In short, the players agency was neutered. This has been Stern’s effort to regain the dream, long lost. If you read Leonard’s superb book, you might not think of it as one, anymore. (John Wilmes)
By David J. Leonard
SUNY Press, 286 pages, $85