Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Race and the Blazers

In the months leading up to the draft I read comments in several online venues which both disturbed me and made me think. Every once in a while a post would come up saying Portlanders favored Adam Morrison over everyone else because he was caucasian. I tried not to respond in a knee-jerk fashion because I felt the issue needed some thought and probably some space. I don't even know if I should be tackling it now, well after the draft. I'm probably not in the best position to know, being caucasian myself and living outside of the Portland area for about a decade now. But it seems to me something needs to be said, if not in the interest of rebutting the claim at least in the interest of productive thought and conversation. It doesn't seem fair to just let those assertions hang in the air as if they were unadulterated truth (even if there is some truth in them).

I think the first and fairest admission to make is that yes, there is racism in Portland, both individually and institutionally. I don't know whether it is better or worse than other comparable cities, but I do know that as Portland has become more multi-cultural over the past few decades it has experienced revelations that have brought those facts to life...revelations that maybe other places had decades ago but we are just experiencing now. It is my sincere hope that the city is learning and growing from those revelations, but I am not naive enough to think that the process is, or will ever be, complete. Racism IS a problem...a crippling barrier...which affects all of us. Nobody is exempt.

Nor can one claim that enjoying watching people of different races on an athletic field is proof that racism doesn't exist. Sports are their own world with very specific rules and boundaries. Among the most important are the lines marking the borders of play. On one side of those lines lies unbridled spectacle...energy and violence displayed for the entertainment of the people on the other side of the line. At least for the duration of the game the two worlds do not mix. This is why we get a vicarious thrill when something leaks over those boundaries, like a foul ball in baseball or when a player slaps our hand while walking out the tunnel. We get to touch, experience, and keep a little bit of that "other world" and its excitement without actually being in danger ourselves. This is also why those barriers breaking down completely in the case of the Indiana/Detroit brawl a couple years ago made national news for days and was met with such shock and horror. It wasn't just the violence...we see that every day in boxing matches, ultimate fighting, and even bar brawls down at the local dive. It was more like another world impinged on ours, like chaos swirled through what was supposed to be an orderly society. The point is, saying, "We like those players" in the context of the game means, "We like those players as long as they're in another world, separated from ours." This doesn't eliminate the possibility of racism, any more than a Roman citizen saying, "I like that gladiator" would show equality in that society.

Without letting us off the hook, though, I think there is some evidence on the other end of the scale also, both in the specific case of Morrison and in general.

First of all, it became evident as the draft approached and even more evident after it that the supposed support for Morrison was overblown. Yes, a lot of people liked him, but not necessarily to the exclusion of other players. In fact from the comments I read and heard, as many people favored Roy, Thomas, and Aldridge as A-Mo, just not as vocally or with catchy music. After the draft 99% of the comments were positive in favor of Aldridge and Roy, while the anger at losing out on Morrison was barely a blip on the radar. Clearly some Morrison fans converted instantly, which would pretty much preclude race being the main issue here. I would bet that most of the people who supported him would talk about his emotion or the fact that he won the college scoring title long before they would mention his ethnicity. That's not to say it didn't play any factor, but I doubt it was a significant one for most people and certainly not for the fan base as a whole.

In fact if you broaden the question and look at the most popular Blazer players in history, race doesn't seem to be a determining factor in that popularity. I only go back to 1977 so I can't speak for the Petrie-Wicks era, but since then I would judge the following players among the most enduringly revered:

Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Jim Paxson, Billy Ray Bates, Clyde Drexler, Buck Williams, Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Brian Grant, Jermaine O'Neal

Before all is said and done I bet that Martell Webster and Brandon Roy both end up on that list too. Only two of those players are American-born caucasians, two are Eastern Europeans, and the rest are African-American. If you polled people on the most popular Blazer of all time Clyde Drexler would win hands down. Jim Paxson, though popular in his era, would barely register. It doesn't make a lot of sense that a fan base aching for the next Clyde would refuse to accept him unless he were also white.

Though we said you cannot assume any kind of general equality based on the public's opinion of players on the court we must also say that Portland as a whole has historically been very invested in welcoming players into the community, even in the "bad old days". Kenny Carr, Kermit Washington, Kevin Duckworth, Mychal Thompson, and many more ex-Blazers remained Portlanders long after their playing days. This does not in any way imply that people have been more accepting of African-Americans as a whole in the community--that's a separate issue. But as far as Blazer players, the people of Portland (at least in the popular perception) have seemed quite willing to go beyond that "sports barrier", maybe even more so than in other towns. Again, it doesn't make sense that the community would turn around in the draft and say, "Whites Only".

One of the residual topics hanging over this discussion that I see mentioned all the time is the treatment of Rasheed Wallace. One of the popular lines of thinking seems to be that we ran him out of town, possibly with the implication that race, or honesty about race, had something to do with it. Maybe I'm all mixed up on this, and I am willing to be corrected if I am, but I honestly don't see it. Casual fans in this town loved Rasheed...LOVED him. The Garden would rock with "Sheed" chants every time he touched the ball. The initial thing that cause people to question him was the 50,000 technicals, especially getting tossed in the San Antonio WCF series in 1999 for jawing at Mike Mathis in the 4th quarter. At that point you started to hear a few boos when he'd get worked up and was cruising for a "T". But that didn't inhibit the cheers one bit. The second big incident was the freeway bust in the Hummer with Damon and the pot. Again I would argue this was less a racial issue than one of common restraint. James Edwards was African-American and our center for a couple of years, and he had the nickname "Buddha" for a reason and everybody knew it. Nobody said a thing. This town would have jumped at the chance to get Robert Parish at any point in his career, including after his admission that he used marijuana. But both guys were basically able to control the partying and keep it in private. Sheed didn't. Given that, I don't think it would have mattered if he was Kiki Vandeweghe...the negative attention still would have been there.

Either way, neither of those straws broke the camel's back. Rasheed did not want to be here in the last year of his contract. He did not want to re-sign here. In his last season he started taking large breaks on the court. He also started giving quotes like "CTC", guaranteed to infuriate any fan. Only THEN did you hear the boos rain down. And you know what? It was still 50/50 in the Garden, and remains so today when he visits. To the best of my ability to discern, neither the cheers nor the boos have much to do with race. In fact all-time Blazer hero Bill Walton got (and gets) basically the same response and all he did was come up with a foot injury that caused his Portland career to end.

In short, I don't see that anybody ran Rasheed out of town in the first place. And if they did, I don't see how it was because of race in particular.

I don't deny that racism is an ugly, tragic reality in our society. I don't think, however, that in the venue of professional basketball there is justification for painting Portland fans as more racist than any others. It bothers me that the assertion is just thrown out there casually. In this day of media licentiousness and word pollution, anything that is repeated enough starts to take on an air of truth. I don't think such claims do justice to the players or the community and it would bother me to have fans or players read them and just assume their veracity without any reflection.

I don't know if this post will engender a lot of comments or a collective "Meh". As I said, I am hardly the expert on this subject and I welcome divergent views. I would ask, however, that folks be very intentional about what they say and how they say it, as I have tried to be. Be mindful that all kinds of people are reading and please be respectful of others as you comment.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)


Blogger Ken said...

I don't know what "meh" means, exactly, sounds Jewish to me, but I think I'm kind of leaning that way. I also saw the comments you mention and I believe they were mostly written by morons.

However... racism does exist in basketball as it does in all other aspects of life. I think there are a lot of small minded white folks who are looking for the "great white hope" to come along and prove, once and for all that white guys can play as well as people of color. It wasn't that long ago that Zeke made his infamous remarks concerning Larry Bird's whiteness.

I would hope that someday we can all forget the BS and just enjoy watching our team, interacting with one another, and living and letting live but I'm not holding my breath.

And before anyone lambastes me, the Jewish line was a feeble attempt at a joke concerning the subject matter. In fact, one of my best friends is a black Jewish cowboy from Canada. I swear.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Ken - if he's gay too, then we must have the same best friend...

I may be very naive, but I don't think that MOST Blazer fans care about a player's race. Portland itself is "whiter" than most (all? I'll have to do some research) NBA cities. It has to do with history, not that we make life difficult for other races living here. But I just don't see our fans wanting Morrison because he was white (I hope some of those avid Morrison supporters will weigh in here.) Most of the appeal for me was that he was a good player, a good guy, and from a Northwest school. (Which also equals Brandon Roy - the name I was rooting for on draft night.)

I've been aware of the "Portland-likes-white-players" comments, but couldn't tell you where they originated. But things like waving bye-bye to Telfair while embracing Blake has to feed into it. Treating Prz's resigning as if he were a super-star (hey, he's not even an all-star) also does. I (who am caucasian) applauded both of these moves, but if race had anything to do with MY feelings I'm sure not aware of it. (I didn't want Theo to go, if that helps any.) But I was very aware (but not with any pride) when last season they'd picture the starting line-ups and ours included Joel, Blake and Khryapa while the opponent's starters were all African-American.

FWIW, my most favorite starting five in Blazer history is Terry, Clyde, Buck, Duck, and Jerome. Who cared what color they were - they wore red & black, played their hearts out, and we loved 'em.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I'm a lot like you Jorga, and I think you said it very well (as usual).


6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree completely with your comments regarding Portlanders, basketball, and racism. I think it's not really an issue to most fans.

I also agree with Ken's comment that racism does exist in basketball and in life. I have to agree with Kobe (unfortunately) and others who disputed the minimum age rule of 19 as racist a year to two years ago. I don't belive this was the intention of the rule, but I think the implications are unfair to those who have less money. Check out the demographics and see who that is most relative to. I know if someone was going to be a high draft pick a free ride to college would be possible, but college is not always an option for everyone, sometimes putting food on the table for your brothers and sisters and helping out your single mother is top priority. Sure that 18 year old could try to stay in shape and enter the draft a year later, but who has the advantage in that situaton?

I don't want to get off topic, but just think that this is an example of a rule that was put on the books that in itself helps to unlevel the playing field, even if unintentional. Racism does exist in basketball, because of that a predominantly caucasian city will be called racist from time to time, even if unwarranted.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Good point on the age rule. I remember people going back and forth about that aspect quite a bit. It's funny, no matter what you do it's never pure or free of this kind of consideration. But then again maybe it shouldn't be free of this kind of consideration because we need to remember to talk and think about this stuff from time to time.

Great, thoughtful comment. I hope you'll offer more in the future. Adopt a name too, if you wish.


8:01 PM  
Anonymous j said...

Staying off topic here ... I didn't follow the age rule arguements, but I hated seeing high school kids jump right to the NBA. However, college isn't for everyone, no matter what your race or athletic ability. If there were basketball minor leagues then a player could get the same kind of seasoning and playing time that he could have gotten in college without having to go through the sham of getting educated too. (Apologies here to the guys - and gals - who actually enjoyed going to classes and have been proud to graduate.)

It takes a really strong 18 yr old to cope with suddenly having a couple of million dollars when last year he had nothing - and to be surrounded with diamond studded millionaires with diamond studded lifestyles. How many of us can look back at 18 and say, "yes, I was mature and I knew what I was doing and I made sensible decisions"??? (If you can, you aren't yet out of your twenties.) OK, some of you were fully mature at 18, but most of us weren't. (And I ain't talkin' physically.)

I know that colleges need the money from athletics, but I do wish the two could become a little less intertwined.

And I'll put away my soapbox; I do get over emotional about some things :-)

10:17 PM  
Anonymous jorga said...

Oops, that last comment was from me - I obviously hit the wrong key at the wrong time - and I didn't even get a change to proof read. My apologies.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Part of the age rule-race connection came from comparison to other sports. 14-18 year old white tennis players going pro, fine. 18 year old white golfers going pro, fine. 13-16 year old white gymnasts getting endorsements from breakfast cereals, fine. Recently-graduated baseball prospects, 15 year old soccer players, both fine. An 18 year old African-American kid wants to play hoops...ummmm...not OK? I agree that it's probably better for the league with an age limit (like the NFL has) and in some ways it might be better for the kids to have less pressure in college or a developmental league, as you say. But I can see where some people cried foul.


10:48 PM  
Anonymous brian said...

With regards to the age limit, I think the whole racism thing is way overblown. Let's remember that we are talking about fewer than 20 people who would be effected (in so much as they would be denied an NBA contract they might otherwise have earned) by this change in any given year. Also let's not forget that part of the reason the rule was adopted was to protect the roster spots of veteran players (who are also over-whelmingly black) rather than giving them to prospects who have no chance of playing that year.
Also, it's not like there aren't other options besides college. Players can go to Europe, the D-League, or other overseas leagues. Of course, they're not going to get millions, but I don't believe they should be paid that kind of money to ride the bench in the NBA either. The age limit was about saving teams money and roster spots, and trying to improve the level of play in the league. It's not like the NBA won't be there for them 12 months later.

4:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am white and am immensely please that the Blazers did not take Morrision and did get Aldridge AND Roy.

6:44 AM  
Blogger BLAZER PROPHET said...

In general, I don’t go for conspiracy theories, but I felt the Adam Morrison thing that was started and blown waaaaaaaaaaay out of proportion by KFXX was actually a three-pronged ploy by that anti-blazer station. In the first part, because Morrison is white and KFXX is a group of good ‘ol boys, in the second part KFXX wanted to see if they could influence the Blazers draft pick and/or place themselves in a position to say so, and third to try and get the Blazers to waste a pick on a player that has a great chance to be a total top 5 draft bust. As to racism, sure it exists in Portland (as it does everywhere- whites against blacks and blacks against whites), but when it comes to the rubber meeting the road, fans wants wins and a player’s color is of no consequence.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous fatty said...

the bottom line is 2 fold,1 the
nba african-american players 90%
would not play in portland
because when you look at the
city of portland it's disavantages
towards most black ballplayers
are 1)portland is not in tune
with the hip-hop culture,these
guys wan't to wear durags,jewelry
go wilding with their boys
(zach drag racing at 3:am)those
type of things,no night spots
at night for brothers in portland
to meet sistas,it's just a fact
i've been to portland many times
and i love the place,but most
brothers from another part of
the country would have cultural
shock to see a society 95%
lilly white,phoenix is the best
example jorga where the white
folks are out of touch with
the rest of america, as for the
blazers side of it,i find it kind
of strange that mike barrett
k.pricthard and joel pryzbilla
are so tight,at least a.morrison
has the potential to score
between 16-24 pts a game that's
why people continue to laugh
at this organization, you people
and the blazers are treating
pryzbilla like he's the new shaq
and blake like he's j.stockton
to me something is very fishy
about that, also k.pricthard
keeps saying over and over again
the blazers are getting players
who wan't to be in portland
all year long not guys who have
the u-haul truck running on
april 19, so in my opinion it
does exist big time in portland
just look at the players who
were here and gone the last
8.yrs also who their treating
like the new shaq, let's see
next june if they get a chance
at oden*noah will m.barrett
go the extra mile for one of
2 franchise centers not a role
player who you portland guys
wanted real badly to stay so
you guys are also the blame
for pryzbilla getting shaq like
treatment, so racism is very
real in portland... the team
p.r. people treating this stiff
like he's shaq what a sorry
state of affairs,well don't
worry blazer fans the sonics
leftovers will be down to buy
tickets a year from now so you'll
get new fans,hey dave let me know
if you take me up on my offer
buddy !!!!!

10:40 AM  
Blogger drawingjeremy said...

Just testing. I was the annonomyous commenter above, have created an account previously, but it hasn't seemed to work yet, wanted to see if this posts w/ my chosen username...

3:14 PM  
Blogger jojack said...

geez dave, i felt i should chime in here cuz i seem to remember sending you an email saying that rasheed was "too black" for portland or words to that effect. but after i got done the comment was almost as long as your post. so instead i pasted it to word and i think i may have to write a post of my own. good, thoughtful stuff here guys, keep up the good work.

7:47 PM  

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