How comfortable are you with yourself? Like many of my peers, I have to admit I grew up with a significant amount of discomfort. Some of the discomfort can be explained by my inability to harmonize my sinful and lethargic self and the expectation I would be a church minister and a successful academic. Some of it also had to do with the fact that I have fully stepped into the margins of normal white society of small-town Canada, and taken on more of a “world view,” and an outsider status to the hockey-dominant and anti-intellectual public culture of my youth, and have just chosen other things to like: the love of basketball and of reading and writing. Basketball gave me the opportunity to apply the skills of my 190-cm frame, soft hands, and my love for teamwork in a way that made me feel like I somehow belonged. People passed to me, and I passed to them. We pushed each other to succeed. I loved the exuberance of playing well, and occasionally winning. I loved rebounding and running. In the end, I realized my love of the game was connected to that feeling of communion and joy that I regularly experienced. There was something about the game that not only made me feel comfortable, but also realize that I was thriving.
I grew up in the basketball days of Kareem (if I may be so bold to call him by his first name). But I thrived on the Magic-Bird relationship that came, as it were, after Kareem was no longer the “face” of the league. I loved Kareem, and I used to spend hours at a basketball hoop trying to perfect the sky hook. I now only can make 1 out of 2 attempts, and that with no defense. But Kareem has made a point that needs to be reflected upon: why is it that basketball draws so many people from different racial backgrounds together in such a comfortable way?
Let’s look at the following fact about Abdul-Jabbar’s ambivalent relationship with the media:
In a much-publicized spot on the ‘‘Today’’ show, Joe Garagiola, a baseball player turned TV personality, asked Abdul-Jabbar why he wouldn’t play for his country (the 1968 USA men’s basketball Olympic team).
What isn’t talked about by Jay Caspian Kang is the deep point that Kareem made, that “my country” refers to the place that he deeply belonged. As it is reported in the Times, Kareem did not want to represent a country that did not treat him as an equal. Garagiola understood “my country” as the place that issued his passport.
This contrast about the notion of belonging is significant, and is too often overlooked. By using Kareem’s thoughts here, I want us to examine the increasing popularity of basketball (it is the second-most popular sport – both viewed and played – in the world, next to football [soccer]). Is there something about basketball that invites us home? Is there something about basketball that bridges the many barriers that divide people from each other, and connect us to our deeper, truer selves. Is their something about basketball that connects us to our authentic selves, and connects us authentically to others, i.e. across social and cultural divides?
Abdul-Jabbar touches on one aspect of this when talking about Magic Johnson, who, despite the years and their divergent paths, is still cast as Abdul-Jabbar’s opposite. Where Kareem was dour, Magic was outgoing and friendly. Where Abdul-Jabbar was mechanical, Magic was creative. For better or worse, Abdul-Jabbar, basketball’s scarecrow, was uprooted and stored away, forever defined by how much like Magic he wasn’t. ‘‘I understood why people liked him,’’ Abdul-Jabbar has said. ‘‘He had that great smile, so white people thought his life was O.K. They thought that racism had not affected him. They were wrong, of course. But that’s what they saw when they saw him. Magic made white people feel comfortable. With themselves.’’
Abdul-Jabbar admits that his own stand-offish ways with the press and the public hurt him in the long run. I, for one, have a hard time blaming him for this though. A person who becomes angry and distrustful of the public is natural, given that he grew up in a time when his country didn’t represent him in any meaningful way. I think his incredibly tall frame is an appropriate way to stand out and be seen for something which was not the way he self-identified, i.e. as a student of English and History, and with aspirations to become a writer.
But basketball itself has brought Kareem’s substantial skills of articulation, wisdom, and a place in history out in the end. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-EAN6xcPVA) As a commentator, he is neither particularly brilliant nor worldview changing, but he is authentic,. By speaking from the heart and from the wealth of experience he has, he often says something that needs to be heard.
And it is these three pieces that help us see the unique picture that basketball reaches beyond across barriers comes into focus. Kareem’s observation is that Magic made white people feel less threatened when he first joined the league; Kareem’s greatness through basketball was accomplished through his marginalization as a tall, black man; and, the team sense created belonging and shared experience through both my youth and through my adult years in college, and internationally in South Korea, Thailand, and Saudi Arabia.
Beyond the accidents of my international experience though, there is one more. Basketball, between sport and spectator, is more intamate than any other sport. North American football, baseball, cricket and soccer (via distance) and hockey (via the boards) separates the fan from the players. The uniforms cover much more of the players in these sports than basketball. In basketball, you see the emotions, and hear the squeak of the sneakers, occasionally catch a wayward ball; you hear the words of the players, and you smell the sweat of their bodies. NBA players also have much more direct contact with the community through “NBA Cares”. Further, you are aware of the relationship between superstars and community. To refer to my Toronto Raptors, both Vince Carter and DeMar DeRozan, and to a lesser extent, Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady, They hold special places in the hearts of Raptor fans because of their deep connections to the community. Carter made the city a place to go to in the basketball world, and DeRozan made it a place to thrive in beyond basketball.
In basketball, the intimacy, the teamwork, the ability to overcome marginalization through sexuality and race, and its non-threatening presence in society indeed make basketball something that can occupy the world of hearts and minds. Not merely an interesting distraction from the anxiety of contemporary life, basketball is life-affirming and inclusive. It embodies a world value, whether James Naismith (the Canadian inventor) intended to or not, namely, that by participating together, regardless of accidents of birth, we are indeed on the same court and our passions directed toward a unified goal.