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Does racism still exist in Basketball?

Glory Road gives us an insight into what triggered the downfall of racism from the sport of basketball to a point that it is non-existent. Or is it?

Ashwin Menon, Undergraduate Batch of 2022

The 2006 movie, Glory Road by Disney was based on the story of a small team from El-Paso, Texas coached by coach Don Haskins which dared to have an all-black player starting line-up for the first time in NCAA history. The movie highlights the struggles faced by the team on their path to glory in the 1966 NCAA championship. Haskins’s men went through the regular season with a 23-1 record which was followed up with a 72-65 win against the Kentucky Wildcats (the number 1 seeded team in the whole country) in the finals. This win started a domino effect which led to the present-day situation where over 75% of the players in the NBA are black. Their win proved, as Harry Flournoy, one of the starting forwards would later put it, “We were fighting to prove that it doesn’t matter what colour you were. Given the opportunity, you could do anything.”

Black players were, for long, considered inferior to white players. They were viewed as runners and never appreciated for their skill, talent or intelligent plays. Haskins and his team were constantly abused during their season. The movie even depicts a scene where the players walk back to their motel rooms to be greeted by the n-word and the c-word painted on the walls with blood and their clothes being ruined. Orsten Artis, a starter in the game would later describe it as a game that was portrayed as one between a black and a white team. However, all the players agreed that it wasn’t about proving that black players were better than white, but that black players deserved the same opportunity and that with that opportunity, they could stand on the same pedestal as any other player. So, the logical conclusion would be that the people became more accepting of black players and racism no longer exists or exists to a lesser extent within the basketball leagues.

During the next few decades, another trend became increasingly popular due to the increase in televised sports broadcast. For the longest time, everyone thought that the average body type (average height, average weight) with body dimensions bordering on Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man was the ideal body type for all sports. This meant your average high jumper, water polo player, and swimmer would all look the same as a basketball player. As sports began receiving more media scrutiny, this changed and there came a need for specialized body types within the sport. Nowadays water polo players have ludicrously long forearms, high jumpers have gotten shorter in height but with longer legs, swimmers have ridiculous wingspans like those of Michael Phelps with his 6ft 7 wingspan with respect to his 6ft 4 height Leonardo da Vinci would definitely be scratching his head on how to fit Javale McGee’s 7ft 9-inch wingspan on a 7ft frame into shapes.

There also came this obsession of bringing in bigger, taller and more talented players into the NBA and with so much focus and attention, young black players were finally given an incentive and an opportunity to shine. It is no secret that men of Kalenjin origin dominate the long-distance running scene and it is also known that the Nordic and eastern European countries dominate the strongman competitions. In the NBA, it can be said that nowadays black players call the shots and it is heart-warming to realize they are viewed as revered gods of a game that was once considered to be beyond them. Yet with all of the supposed progress, it is gut-wrenching to know that racism is still unbelievably prevalent in the NBA.

In 2018, Russell Westbrook faced racist behaviour from the fans of the Utah Jazz. In one instance, somebody went miles beyond the limits by asking him to “get down on your knees like you used to”. This is no isolated incident. Demarcus Cousins went through a similar incident at a Warriors’ game and so did Marcus Smart, who was racially abused on the street by a woman a few hours before the game. Ironically, she was wearing an Isiah Thomas (an African-American himself) jersey!

One of the more known incidents was the arrest of Thabo Sefolosha who is a mixed-race man of Swiss and South African descent. His legs were beaten by police officers with a retractable baton which led him to being ruled out for the rest of the season. He was released the very next day since there was no reason for his initial arrest anyway. One also cannot forget the abuse Bill Russell got from his own city, Boston when he went to play for the Celtics and later returned to coach them. On an organizational level, the league also had a cap on the number of African-American players which many critics referred to as a “plantation-like” mentality which made it seem as if these players were property rather than human beings. Then there is the incident of Masai Ujiri, the General Manager of the Raptors who was responsible for the masterstroke of taking a chance on a free agent Kawhi Leonard. When the trophy came to Canada, as the Raptors won the championship, Mr Ujiri was the only member of the Raptors’ upper echelon not present. It came to light later that this was due to an altercation he had with the security who claimed he didn’t have any kind of proof to show he was a GM and got violent with them when he protested the denial of access to the trophy celebrations. Video evidence later confirmed that Mr Ujiri did have the right credentials and he did not start any physical drama. The only thing he did not have in common with the other members was his Nigerian descent and the colour of his skin.

In the light of recent events, the NBA has shown their support for the Black Lives Matter movement with the players taking the lead in a massive way. The NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in response to recent events “Racism, police brutality and racial injustice remain part of everyday life in America and cannot be ignored. At the same time, those who serve and protect our communities honourably and heroically are again left to answer for those who don’t.” The players and various heads of organisations were extremely vocal about this issue. Prior to that, Clippers GM Donald Stirling was subject to protests after he was found to have made racist remarks about the players. The NBA was quick to ban the man for life from the sport and was extremely vocal about their stance on the issue, much to the appreciation of the players.

Glory Road was a beautiful and entertaining depiction that may have changed basketball history in the United States and it is worth a watch. Pat Riley, one of the Wildcats players said, “We never knew we were part of something special.” What if they weren’t? Kyle Korver said these words in Prejudice, “players were sick and tired of experiencing this(racism) in their lives” and according to one of his teammates, the NBA felt “like being in a zoo”. It is true that people of all races have been accepted into the NBA as time has passed. Yet racism still exists, which begs the question, are these African-American players appreciated just as entertainers and nothing more, or as genuine people with families and livelihoods no matter the colour of their skin?

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