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When White Men Jump

All I need to know I learned from Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane...well not all but they taught me something.


(Editor's Note: We encourage our writers to speak on their experiences if they felt led to. We didn't want to edit them, for better or worse.)
The words of this article are solely a reflection of its author and not necessarily the views of my teammates on Peachtree Hoops or SBNation.

"You can put a cat in an oven, but that don't make it a biscuit."
-Wesley Snipes as Sidney Deane in White Men Can't Jump

I know what racism looks like, sounds like, smells like. I was born into such thoughts. I expressed them. I thank God that I was confused enough in them to ask better questions over time, but it does not change the awful jokes I made about certain people of color at age 7 or the people who loved me and still use terribly ignorant words.

Growing up in a town where almost everyone looked and spoke like me made it all too easy to hear and believe the world around me. Basketball--and my love for it--broke through that world. I was obsessed with point guards. When I watched basketball my world was more colorful. I don't remember Terry Coner (1980s point guard at Alabama) as a black point guard. He was just awesome and remains the model of what a point guard should be. For some reason, skin color did not come into play when I put Kenny Anderson's poster on my door or saved Sports Illustrated clippings of Isiah Thomas. Kevin Johnson is my all-time favorite player and he was just another smart guy who played the way I wanted to play.

Was I completely separated from color as I grew up? No way. I still cheered for Bobby Hurley at Duke primarily because he looked like what I saw in the mirror. I "raised the roof" after making a great play in basketball practice only after Bobby Sura did so for the Cavs (clip at the 2:15 mark) and made it acceptable. Does a part of me find Kyle Korver more personally compelling because of shared skin tone? More than I would prefer.

The truth is basketball became a playground for me beyond the game. Basketball was a place where I could work through my own racial issues. Strangely, it was a safe place where I was not the racist white guy because the racist white guys did not play basketball. In fact, some racist families restricted their kids to playing baseball instead of that (insert that word here) sport. I refrain from sharing what some people shared with me when I cheered for Magic's Lakers over Bird's Celtics as a kid. It bothered me and also made me more steadfast in standing for something I did not even understand I was standing up for. Maybe I still don't.

Maybe something I understood of point guards informed something I began to understand of humanity. We individually have strengths and weakness. We culturally have strengths and weakness. The job of the point guard on the court is to see those differences and highlight the former while hiding the latter--in one's self and importantly in others. The best point guards take the otherness of everyone on the floor and make it work for the good of all. How much more important is that quality in being a human being?

I am white. I do not want you to look at me and deny that--for better or worse. I did not feel that way until a brilliant African-American female professor named Marcia Riggs challenged my post-racial beliefs. It was hard work to become someone who could see beyond color, yet Professor Riggs moved me to see in color (with the help of Samuel Jackson in A Time to Kill). Denying her blackness and her womanhood was to deny her humanity. Likewise, to reject the good and bad of my whiteness is to reject the person I was placed on earth to be. She was right--a true point guard for cultural ethics. It is in seeing the color in each of us that those of us constrained by it are set free.

I am more than white, too. My experiences have changed me. How I interpret the events of this week is completely affected by how I have experienced the world in the beauty and horror of its color. It is affected by my experience with Mrs. Williams in the third grade who not only helped me to understand subjects and predicates, but showed me that the experience shared by some around me about people of her color was flawed. It was affected by Bonkie McCain who was one of the best Christians I knew and helped me stand up for myself on the basketball court before he was innocently murdered in a drive-by shooting. Those experiences make me more than just another racist white dude. Thanks be to God.

When I moved to Atlanta for seminary, I naively decided to go to a barber shop on the end of town where I was most likely going to be able to talk about basketball. Me and my goofy Billy Hoyle smile entered into the shop and excitedly saw seven black men and three empty chairs. They told me they were busy and could not cut my hair. And in that moment I understood something I had never really understood. For me, it was just one day.

I got the message. I was the other and I was not welcome. I hate when point guards are unable to share.

When I first read Bruce Levenson's e-mail, I came back to the emotions of that day at the barber shop. I was only slightly mad at the men in the shop and a little more so at Levenson. But I was pissed. When color separates I become white again in every way I hate. I am suddenly either the guy who showed up at the playground and could not get a game based on outward assumptions or even worse: a part of the culture that justifies those assumptions.

I did not like all that Mark Cuban had to say about the Sterling situation, but there are several things he said that are instructive and insightful. Primarily, I valued his words: "In this country, people are allowed to be morons." There are a lot of morons in the world and a lot of them have money and power. Levenson is mostly guilty of being a moron via the e-mail he sent. He is guilty of being racially insensitive at best and at worst...well, I leave that to each individual to determine.

I don't know what Danny Ferry meant in repeating the words of the scouting report. I have no evidence of his past or present actions causing harmful intent or racially-charged underpinnings. I think he made an error in judgment that would be a significantly smaller story if it happens when Donald Sterling still owns an NBA team. At least I thought that before reading the full letter on Monday night that leaves me shaking my head. Now, I am unsure who to hold accountable. Was it a naive reading of a scouting report or a shared value in its reading? Given where I have been at points in my life, I still have room for understanding the former while acknowledging a presence of suspended disbelief.

I am not foolish enough to believe Michael Gearon, Jr. responded to Ferry out of some deep desire to defend the integrity of Atlanta macro culture. If anyone is naive enough to think cultural stereotypes and poor labels are not part of NBA culture from scouting all the way up, I invite you to stop reading. In my very short time writing about college and international prospects, the use of language repeated by Ferry is more common than is comfortable--and also shared without malice. Scouting is brutally honest and does not care about political correctness at its core. Everything is thrown on the wall and torn apart. There are assumptions made about nearly every culture and it goes well beyond skin color and nationality--from AAU to the French to white players to playground culture to what coach one has played for or been paid by to single mothers. There is a lot of money involved in getting evaluations right and the assumptions run both ways. One scout's baller is another's thug. One sees "African" players as struggling with adversity or being fake while another makes an account of team play and community involvement. Or an account may uphold all of the above. Whatever you see and hear on the blacktop is scribbled on a scout's page just as boldly.

What would make all of this truly tragic to me is if the post-Sterling era of the NBA becomes a symbolic white picket fence of a post-racial lie. I love Hoosiers, but I do not want to be a fan of a league that tells a good story while muting the obvious and difficult parodies on our screens, courts, and in our arenas. White Men Can't Jump brought Billy Hoyle and Sidney Deane into my very white world and made me laugh while feeling something real. Instead of pretending that we were all the same, they dunked--or failed to dunk--and talked trash while embracing what was taboo. At the end of the day, the white guy dunked, the hustler worked to make a better world for his family, and a Latino woman was the smartest person on the screen...and none of that was weird because it was honest and heart-breaking and fun. Movies are all of those things at their best...and so is basketball.

Trash talk can be dangerous. It explicitly tears one down. Implicitly, it injects HGH into our otherness and exposes something so deep that the otherness somehow becomes acceptable and more human. Two opponents strangely share something creative and in naming and name-calling the otherness, it becomes something different. I love basketball because of that as much as anything else. I just wish my jumper was better than my mouth.

There was a time in my life that MARTA stood for something different than what it really stands for...and I thought it was funny: Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta. That confession alone may be reason enough for me to never write another word about the Hawks. In a post-Sterling NBA, I am abundantly aware of the danger of such an expression. But I wanted more for myself when I thought that way and I want more now. The way Ferry chose to use the word "African" inspires understandable vitriol and is worthy of whatever discipline comes his way up to losing his job. Unfortunately, placing all of our conscience energy into who is and is not ousted does not move any of us rapidly to living in better communities. For me, there remains room for Ferry to remain GM even if the cat is now out of the oven and a long way from being a biscuit. Ownership is a different issue and ultimately ownership will determine Ferry's fate and the future fate of the Atlanta Hawks.

Silence and measured words too often reduces culture to the limitations offered by people like Levenson and reinforced in Ferry's repeating of a scout's commentary. I want something better than that. I want ownership that sees spirit in cheerleaders of all color, not spirit in particular colors--especially green. If "African" as shared in the report means something about deception and being fake than its time the African Spirit Group rapidly gets itself out of Atlanta and is replaced by some grown people who love basketball and its multi-colored culture more than how owning a team makes them feel and empowers them to act. Maybe the star fans have been craving for so long is not one in shorts, but one who sits above the whole organization with the competence to move the Hawks closer to hanging a banner than repeatedly hanging those who love the Hawks beyond what is reasonable given the track record. There may be dark days still to come, but I am hopeful they are not colorless ones.

I am thirsty and its time those in charge of the Hawks and the NBA brought Atlanta fans of all colors and opinions some damn water. I can't jump. I never could. I don't want to now. It is time fans in Atlanta were permitted to be the morons instead of continually watching them own and run our basketball team.

(And as far as cheerleaders go, I recommend giving a call to Gloria.)