Sports generally and the NBA specifically have always been pioneers, years ahead of society when it comes to racial issues. Black players entered the NFL in 1946, MLB in 1947 and the NBA in 1951, all more before Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and over a decade ahead of the pivotal civil rights events of the 1960s.
The NBA has continued to be a leader with more African-American players, coaches, GMs and owners than any other league.
Even the fans and sponsors have successfully made the transition from the playground players of the ABA, to the “NBA is too black” years of the late 1970s, through the popularity of gangsta rap and tattoos, bringing all of these cultural evolutions to the mainstream.
As a result, sports have always been the place where merit counts more than anything. In fact, the playing field is so level that color is almost never mentioned.
That’s why it is so surprising that two major race-related incidents made news in the same week. The first was the galactically idiotic Donald Sterling. While those in the know aren’t surprised by his attitudes, I can’t think of an event since the O.J. Simpson case that has both completely captivated the country and brought so swift a downfall.
Not only did Sterling spew racist nonsense, he also attacked Magic Johnson of all people for not supporting the African-American community enough, even though Magic has spent the majority of his post-NBA life supporting urban causes and development.
The other is the rather extraordinary comments in a book about Michael Jordan in which he admitted that he was a racist growing up and “was against all white people” until his mother taught him tolerance.
What I find extraordinary is that while Sterling is a lead story day after day, Jordan’s comments faded almost overnight.
And the rest of the story is that he became the most universally loved sports figure in history, a person who clearly raised the color blindness bar in sports.
Most people will agree that the Sterling episode as an anomaly in sports today. The league has emphatically declared a zero tolerance zone for bigotry. Conversely, the Jordan story is an example of openness triumphing over racism.
So does that mean that racism doesn’t exist in sports anymore? Hardly.
Again, the sports world has a tremendous opportunity to lead the discussion and bring a new level of openness to the general public.
With Sterling’s Archie Bunker attitudes, and Jordan’s story of growing up in North Carolina, we are reminded that racial attitudes are usually developed when we are young. We all take in the experiences and attitudes around us and often develop ideas and opinions that become subconscious programs that we rarely know exist. These attitudes and stories color our perceptions without us even realizing it. Many times we will speak a “truth” we hold and wonder where the hell that came from.
I grew up in the 1960s in Central New York. Even though I grew up in an all white area, basketball opened up the world for me. My dad, Dolph Schayes, played in the NBA with Earl Lloyd and other black pioneers, so race was never even a conversation for me.
My dad also started one of the first basketball camps, and each session featured a guest lecture from a pro player. I remember how excited I was to meet Jo Jo White, Jumpin’ Johnny Green and other pros at the camp, going to the Maurice Stokes Game at Kutsher’s Country Club to raise money for the great Maurice Stokes, and being a ball boy for the Buffalo Braves – all before I was 10 years old.
My developmental years were around a basketball court learning about teamwork and getting along, not race.
And while the racism conversation in sports is always 10-20 years ahead of the public, there are still many leadership opportunities left for the sports world to take on.
Sterling supplied the players and league with the perfect opportunity to reiterate and declare how offensive racial hatred can be.
Jordan reminded us that this conversation is not a one-way street. We all need to be diligent in fighting intolerance.
As a minority in the NBA as a player, I had several run-ins with racism. Probably the most egregious happened after I was an active player. I was on the Board of the NBA’s Retired Players Association when the Board of Directors decided to fire our then Executive Director, who was African-American. I was a few months from taking over as board president and, per bylaws, I was appointed interim executive director.
My first meetings were with Commissioner David Stern and NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter. David was very gracious knowing that the organization was going through a difficult transition. My meeting with Billy was a different thing altogether.
Billy and I had a strong relationship – or so I thought. We were both Syracuse guys, and during the 1998 lockout I worked very closely with him to negotiate the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. He had approached me to lead the negotiating committee as someone who was respected by the players and owners and an established veteran and not being influenced by my agent. I played an instrumental role in ending the lockout and helping Billy secure a long-term contract to lead the union.
When I took over leadership of the Retired Players Association, I met with Billy and NBPA attorney Gary Hall in their office to discuss the transition. I couldn’t have been more shocked when they told me not to be surprised when I heard that they were playing the race card against me. I actually was very surprised, but I had already heard from some players that they were spreading this story. They were trying to say that this was another case of a white guy stealing the job because the former executive director was black.
While I appreciated their candor, I was frankly flabbergasted at their attitude.
I wasn’t especially worried that I could be portrayed as a racist. After 18 years as a player, I had hundreds of former teammates who knew me as an honorary brother. Plus I had served for many years on the regional Board of Directors for the Anti-Defamation League – a very influential anti-hate group – and had done national anti-discrimination campaigns. It wasn’t really possible to make people believe I was racist.
What amazed me was that they would try it on me, of all people. When I asked about it, Hall said that they do it because it always works. Billy always had an “us vs. them” attitude, and for the first time I truly realized how he used race to keep the players unified against “the man,” in this case Stern.
I remember when union attorney Jeffrey Kessler said Stern treated the players “like plantation workers.”
I’m sure that Jeffrey said it as one of those things that you regret before the echo dies, but he didn’t make it up. Clearly, that concept had been discussed in the negotiating rooms and was in reserve to be pulled out when needed.
Whether Billy Hunter should be considered a racist or merely used race as a business tactic, his attitude shaped the leadership voice of the players for a generation.
Now that the union is turning the corner to new leadership, players deserve a new executive director who is a unifying voice – someone who can not only grow business with the league, but more importantly also heal the strife among players (both active and retired) and bring us all together. The players’ body is an incredibly powerful force that has not come close to realizing that potential.
Thanks to Donald Sterling, we have a reminder that sports can be the leader. Hatred and bigotry have no place in sports or society. We aren’t there yet, but all of us can benefit by taking stock of ourselves.
We need to remind ourselves that it’s our differences that make us great. It’s as plain as black and white.
Danny Schayes is a retired 18-year-veteran of the NBA, a professional broadcaster and soon-to-be-published author now penning NBA columns for SheridanHoops. Follow him on Twitter.
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