NBA and racism: the ordeal of stars who made history and leaders who prove the power of sport

Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Russell, two icons of the fight against discrimination (Photo: Shutterstock)
Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Russell, two icons of the fight against discrimination (Photo: Shutterstock)

“It doesn't matter how much money you have, how famous you are or how many people admire you. It's really hard to be black in the United States. ". It was May 31, 2017, it was one day before Lebron James he played the first game of the NBA final against Golden St in Oakland, when painted offensives were found against him in his Los Angeles mansion. Nigger, the derogatory way of calling blacks, was the worst but not the only one and the King made a reflection that could also serve today to reflect this chaotic present after the death of George Floyd at the hands (actually knee) of cop Derek Chauvin. “Racism is still very present. We have a long way to go as a society and we, African Americans, feel equal in our country, "LeBron completed at the time.

It was a few months after he and several NBA folded into a national protest with T-shirts saying "I Can’t Breathe" (I can't breathe), the phrase that African-American citizen Eric Garner said before dying at the hands of a New York police officer. The same one that Floyd repeated five months before becoming unconscious on the street in Minnesota. Causations. Like when Bill russell The same thing happened to LeBron, though almost 60 years earlier at his home in the Boston suburbs. The most winning player in history, surely the basketball player with the highest social commitment in history, he moved to Reading, a “white” town, with great Irish-Catholic ancestry, and they made his life impossible.

First they made it difficult for him to buy the property with the premise that this place was "not for people of his race" and then they vandalized it several times, breaking doors and windows. But one day it was punctually horrible. They entered their home and although they did not steal anything, they kicked the trophies and defecated on his bed, scattered the excrement all over the walls. They also left him a message ("Damn black") with the same word they used with LeBron (Nigger). Causations. This is how they treated the sports star of the team that dominated the NBA (11 titles in 13 years) and put Boston up high. As LeBron said, it doesn't matter how good you are or what you can earn. Hatred and racism have been strongest for thousands of people who fail to see that perhaps African Americans raise (and raise) their voices after being subjected to more than 200 years of oppression, violence and persecution.

If this happens today, it happened in 2017 and 1963, imagine in 1920, when barely six decades had passed since the promulgation of the famous 13th Amendment (1865) that definitely prohibited slavery. 100 years ago, blacks were practically banned from sports. Or, at least, they couldn't practice them how and where they wanted. And never with whites. In basketball they could only play in tournaments for "colored people".

Racism was rampant at that time. In many states, the vast majority of African Americans were unable to vote (in Alabama, for example, just 2%). There were spaces, services, and laws for whites. And others, of course, for blacks, from restrooms to buses to schools and hospitals. It was only after the movement led by activist pastor Martin Luther King, winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize for his resounding non-violent struggles, that blacks had greater equality of rights.

The sport, however, always had its power and it was finding heroes, committed referents who, with a ball in between, helped to change a painful reality. The first was Robert Bob Douglas, a businessman of Caribbean descent who in 1908 founded an African American amateur club (Spartan Field Club) where black children could compete and then went one step further with the Spartan Braves, a basketball team with which he won the national amateur tournament in 1921. Two years later It impacted with the creation of the first professional black team, the famous New York (or Harlem) Rens. A team with several African-American figures of NY street basketball that began to compete and beat the most famous white teams. A team that made history, in sports, winning 2,318 out of 2,899 matches (86% of wins), including a world title in 1939, and socially, helping to break the first social barriers, teaching that another way was possible …

He was not the only one. The mythical Harlem Globetrotters They did their thing and began to make clear what we know today, and even Larry Bird once admitted: “Basketball is a black sport. And it will be forever ”. The mythical Boston star, perhaps the best target in history, made reference to a race that, due to its physical characteristics, clearly has more facilities for basketball: height, power, speed, athletic ability and versatility. It is no coincidence that today almost 80% NBA players are of African American descent and that 9 of the 10 best in history (except Bird) are black.

When the NBA was founded in 1946, the landscape had only changed in the sense that blacks could play, although to a certain extent because there was an unwritten rule that African Americans must be three per team. Black power was reserved, albeit with limitations, to the court … White dominated the rest: stadiums, competition, teams and even the public. Blacks, then, had to wait for someone to give them a chance. And the first one that appeared on the scene was Auerbach Network, the legendary DT of the Celtics, the second most winner in history. The white coach, famous for celebrating each title with a cigar, was the first to choose a black in the draft (Chuck Cooper ranked 14th in the second round of 1950) and then to make his debut, a day after Earl Lloyd became the first African American to play, on October 31 of that year, with Washington Capitals. Nat Clifton was honored to have been the first to sign a contract (with the Knicks) and the pioneering quartet that season was completed by Hank DeZonie. An opening that was not easy: the vote among the 11 owners of the teams ended with a tight 6-5 for those who wanted the entry of blacks. Minneapolis Lakers, with no African descendants on its rosters until 1956, was the leader of the opposition. It was a huge achievement considering that Jim Crow laws dividing public facilities for blacks and whites were still in effect in the country. "Same but separate" was the motto. They would only be annulled with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

From the start, of course, the blacks paid their right to the flat. They were underused, much less than their talents indicated, and their role was reserved for curtains, running, defending, and rebounding. The targets continued to have the shots and the minutes. Just with the arrivals of Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor, African-Americans began to establish themselves as great offensive protagonists. Thus, for the following decade, blacks had more place in the NBA, although community resistance was still present.

Wilt Chamberlain, one of the NBA's first African-American offensive stars
Wilt Chamberlain, one of the NBA's first African-American offensive stars

The best example was given in Boston, an eminently white and very religious city, which in the 1960s put together a very powerful team that dominated the competition (achieved nine of the 10 titles). The main stronghold of the legendary Celtics was Russell, a 2m10 pivot who changed the way of dominating. He did not do it with his scoring talent but with his enormous defensive capacity and mentality. He was the first great black superstar. However, recognition did not come even in the city where it shone. Credits went to Bob Cousy, the white base. The black pivot lived in the shadow of his partner. "I feel a little guilty. I wish I had supported Russ more, ”Cousy would admit years later.

Russell, despite the overwhelming sporting success, lived a hell in Boston, in the middle of a town where there were no blacks and his children went to an all-white school. The police were to follow Russell as he drove his car through the city. Just in case, to protect him. Sure, Bill was never silent. "Boston is a nest of racists," was a historical phrase.

Russ came from an educated and committed family. His grandfather had fought against the Ku Klux Klan and his parents Charles and Katie, in addition to instilling in him that nobody was more than him, motivated him to read and study history. So it was that, as a child, he was nourished by critical thinking. He studied the revolutionary Henri Christophe and had a close relationship with Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Thus he was always a leader against racial inequality. In 1961, in a Kentucky hotel, the managers stopped the four blacks on campus and told them that "they were not serving blacks there." Russell proposed that none play friendly. They all followed him.

That is why so many hated him in Boston and in other cities in the country. That he had ideals, openly expressed them, and militated in organizations for social equality made him a danger to the white elite. So much anger generated that he also began to hate a city and some fans who, instead of having him as an idol, saw him as an enemy, in a good percentage. A feeling that he did not hide. "I would rather be in a Sacramento jail than be the mayor of Boston," he once said. Russell, a tough guy, sullen and with a very distant character, did not sign autographs, not even for children, because “he does not represent me. I refuse to smile and be nice to boys. I do not think that I should be a good example for them, except for my children ”, he wrote in one of the most important magazines, in 1964, highlights a note on the Undefeated site. The anger with the basketball player reached such a point that the FBI opened a case for being "an arrogant nigger" and assigned him a permanent vigilance.

Russell faced the dominant elite since he was in college, and when he reached the peak of his career, instead of lowering his voice, he raised it. He used his national star status to fight racism and inequality. He always did, when he didn't have a “safe position,” as coach John Thompson said in the video tribute when Bill received the Arthur Ashe Courage award in 2019, and also when he had something to lose, in the midst of his brilliant NBA career. . Bill faced whom he owed to achieve his goals. As he did with Walter Kennedy, the NBA commissioner between 1963 and 1975, when there was a quota of three blacks per team. "You can go to hell," he closed the conversation when Kennedy called him to ask "what are you doing to us?" by publicly addressing the issue. Before long, the manager had to abolish that implicit rule. All for that move of who today is considered the patriarch of NBA players.

When Auerbach retired in 1969, Russell broke another barrier by being the first black coach in all of American sport. He won two more titles as DT-player, although he never achieved the deserved recognition. In fact, even today the resistance he received causes some to lower him in the ranking of the 10 best in history. The recognition never worried him. Neither does idolatry. In 1972, when the Celtics withdrew his jersey, Russell asked that it be performed in an intimate ceremony, with no public (read Boston fans), with his friends, family and colleagues. It was only 30 years later that the rite was repeated, this time with a Boston Garden full of fans who applauded him to begin to close a wound that had been too open for a long time.

"I never worked to be understood, accepted or liked," admitted Russell, who was an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was with Muhammad Ali at the remembered "Cleveland Summit" for support the boxer's refusal to be recruited by the Army, a decision that meant a before and after in the fight for equal rights. Russell, who can be seen to the right of Ali in the photo that traveled the world, was the protagonist of the movement that pushed towards the enactment of the laws that ended racial segregation in 1965. A commitment that never stopped. In 2017, he posted a kneeling photo at his home in solidarity with the protest of Colin Kaepernick, the football figure whose protests during the national anthem (kneel down and not sing it) to protest racial inequality and police abuse generated quite a stir. social and political. Today, at 86 years old, his footprint remains as valid as it is deep.

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Precisely that fight and its forms were the inspiration of a boy who, at that time, threatened to be as dominant as Russell. It was called Lew Alcindor and came to the NBA in 1969 after being the most impressive player in the history of high school (two national titles and a 95-6 record with a high school in NY) and the most ever winner in the university tournament (three titles, three best player awards and an 88-2 record with UCLA). The NCAA banned the dump as a play in 1967, in what became known as the Alcindor Act, a rule to avoid dominance. Sure, they would only make it worse. UCLA would not stop winning and the pivot would take the ban as an incentive to continue to polish his game with the addition of the famous Sky Hook, his trademark action.

But, beyond his sporting level, Alcindor began to make headlines for his convictions and activism in the civil rights movement. In 1968, at just 21 years old and inspired by Muhammad Ali's decision a year earlier, he resigned from playing the Olympic Games in Mexico in protest at the unequal treatment of African-Americans in his country. “It was very motivating to play with the best in the world, but the idea of ​​going to Mexico to have a good time seemed very selfish considering the racial violence in my country. If I went and won, I felt that I would contribute to honoring a nation that denied us our rights, ”he would admit in one of his books published in 2017.

Harlem native, member of a family with many concerns, the pivot suffered a very racist context in his Catholic school, in the church and even in his basketball team, in which the coach came to accuse of "acting like a black" . But, at the same time, he grew up captivated by a New York cultural movement and subjugated by the struggles (and ideas) of Malcolm X and Luther King. It was after winning his first title in Milwaukee, in 1971, when he made a momentous decision in his life after reading Malcolm X's biography: he changed his religion (he embraced Islam) and his name. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was renamed, "Noble and Servant of the Almighty".

A decision that brought him more than one problem did not go unnoticed. His parents did not approve of it and many white fans never forgave him. "It looked like he had trampled on the American flag," he would admit years later. Even some fans called him Lew and got mad when Kareem directly ignored them. For him, he says, it was a "spiritual transformation" and the ratification of a path towards absolute social consciousness. "It was my way of adding my voice to the civil rights movement to denounce the legacy of slavery," he said.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote 14 books, several aimed at telling black stories (AP)
Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote 14 books, several aimed at telling black stories (AP)

His sporting impact ended in 1989, when he retired at age 42, after winning six champion rings (five with the Lakers) and six MVP awards., from being the top scorer in history (38,387 points), the one who played the most All Star (19), the one with the most defensive rebounds and the one with the most cover. But its impact never stopped off the field. Not even when for three years he fought (and beat) leukemia. He decided to produce, script and recount a film (On the Shoulders of Giants) about Harlem Rens, that first black basketball team that beat white teams but, at the same time, helped to generate a change, within a context of energy creative known as the Harlem Renaissance. In 2016, he received the highest honor that a US citizen can have: the first African-American president in history, Barack Obama, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contribution to national interest, culture and world peace.

The following year, when Kaepernick's protest divided the country and cost the player his place in the NFL, he openly defended the position. “People focus more on the gesture than on the problem. What happens here is that black Americans are too likely to be shot for no reason. We must change that, "he assured. His approaches were always with extreme clarity and forcefulness, pointing to the peaceful ways that inspired him (from Luther King to Russell, through Ali) and to education. Worshipful and prepared, Abdul Jabbar wrote 14 books, several aimed at telling stories of blacks.

Of course, his presence in those decades, as a player, was almost an island in an ocean because the NBA, especially between 1975 and 1985, lost a lot of popularity. In 1976, the absorption of the ABA took place, a competition full of talented African-Americans, which generated a wave that ended up generating an overwhelming majority of blacks. The NBA, then, began to be seen as "too black" and the enormous growth of drug use (the league was no exception to what was happening in American society) did the rest. The image collapsed and with it the public attendance at stadiums and TV contracts. So it was that, in its own way, racism hit where it hurt the most, in the economy and the crisis deepened.

Until two new stars arrived for rescue … A white from Indiana, Larry Bird, who came to the Catholic and white Boston. And a Michigan black boy, Magic Johnson, who joined the multiracial Los Angeles. Thus a historical rivalry was formed. White versus black. The Celtics vs. the Lakers. A classic that, thanks to the personality (and gift of people) of both, never crossed the court. And while there were signs of racism, especially when Angelenos visited the mythical Boston Garden, the NBA achieved a shocking boom in popularity, which was completed by the management of David Stern, a commissioner who knew how to sell the competition. In his country and, later, in the world, from the explosion of a black man who would change history, the league, the sports industry and the image of athletes (Michael Jordan).

Stern was the driving force behind the search for other markets and, by focusing on globalization, he understood the need to embrace diversity and give a message to that effect. The best commissioner in the history of American sports was not interested in skin color or the religion professed in every corner of the planet. He was looking for new clients for his league and he was pragmatic. Thus his organization began to take teams and idols to different parts of the world, the first step towards the global conquest underpinned by Jordan and the Bulls.

Today there are dozens of academies, campuses, and even school programs organized and supported by the NBA in different parts of the world, especially in Asia and Africa. Important steps were also taken in opening workplaces within the organization and within franchises, positions historically hegemonized by whites. In 2018, by case, 36.4% of the positions within the NBA were for blacks, their best brand ever. They also gained privileged places: in 2012 there were seven general managers and 14 coaches (out of 30) African Americans. Robert Johnson became the first black to own a majority franchise in 2003, and seven years later, none other than Michael Jordan became in control of the franchise. All a symbol of a new era.

LeBron and his litter took, in their own way, the post of their predecessors and pledged to make visible the problems caused by racism. Of course, this time with power and impact never seen before, thanks to a time of much greater exposure due to the explosion of social networks. Players, with other power and visibility, stopped tolerating many of the racist attitudes that were not previously penalized. And this included everyone from fans to team owners.

In 2014, in a case that impacted the world, the NBA suspended first and then forced Donald Sterling to sell his franchise, Los Angeles Clippers, after an audio leaked to his girlfriend saying, "It bothers me a lot." that you spread that you are relating to black people. Do what you want with them, but don't promote them or bring them to the matches. ” Pressure from African-American players, which included the threat of no longer playing on the team or in the Clippers' stadium, forced the NBA to make the most drastic decision in its history.

In 2019, the Jazz suspended for life a fan who uttered racist slurs at Russell Westbrook in a Utah-Oklahoma. It is clear that racism is not a disease endemic only to the United States. It crosses all the countries of the world, including those that claim not to be "so racist". Giannis Antetokounmpo, current NBA MVP, suffered it in his native Greece when he was an illegal citizenl. Until the age of 18, he was unable to apply for Greek nationality because his parents were Nigerian immigrants. For years he lived as a mantero, from the informal sale of glasses and watches, at the risk of being arrested and deported. He admitted having lived in fear, leaving his house and even inside. "We did not make much noise with my brothers so that the neighbors would not report us," he admitted.

It is still not enough, but it is clear that everything has changed a lot. At least, nobody is silent anymore. In 2012, Heat players posed wearing a hood denouncing the murder of 17-year-old black man Trayvon Martin at the hands of a police officer, and in 2016 four superstars like LeBron, Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul took advantage of the opening of the gala. of the ESPY awards to give a speech against armed violence and racism suffered by black populations at the hands of the police. "This has to end. You can't go on without appreciating the lives of black people. Enough is enough! ”Were Wade's forceful phrases.

In that sense, there is no message more powerful than the one that can hit a target. Maybe there can be a big difference. It was the step that Kyle Korver took in 2019. The veteran shooter published a letter for the site The Players Tribune, acknowledging privileges as a white person and making it clear that racism is a structural problem. "We all have to take responsibility. Not only because of our actions, but also because of how our passivity can lead to racist behavior. Anyone who benefits from being on the privileged end is responsible. We have to support the causes of those who have been marginalized, precisely because they have been marginalized. The differences between black and white people come from a very ugly story, not from a random division, "he wrote.

Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered discrimination in Greece, where his family came as an illegal immigrant from Nigeria (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered discrimination in Greece, where his family came as an illegal immigrant from Nigeria (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

It was not the only one. Gregg Popovich, one of the best trainers in history, a wise and very lucid guy, has been very hard on President Donald Trump (he said days ago that he was a "fool, a marionette and an upset asshole hiding in the basement of the White House ”), also accusing him of being misogynistic and racist. Precisely, when speaking of racism, he accepted the evil that his country suffers, condemning it and pointing out the privileges that some have over others. “If you were born white in America, you automatically have a monstrous advantage in education, economy and culture. It is a difficult subject because nobody wants to face it, but it should be a national topic, ”he declared.

In light of recent events it is clear that racism remains a serious problem. In the world, in American society and even in the NBA. But the hopeful thing is that such media and convening stars, true referents and opinion makers, commit themselves in this way so that the new generations understand that equality and respect are the basis of any just society. It is a path, it is a process. It will take time. But sport has enormous power. At least to make the problem visible, provoke debate and put on the table the need to say enough is enough and generate real change.


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