The Devil and the NBA (First Half)

Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Boston Celtics Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, late 1980s (Steve Lipofsky

Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with Boston Celtics Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, late 1980s (Steve Lipofsky

Mr. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the legendary center for the Los Angeles Lakers, has pricked the balloon of our complacency, of our devilish and self-congratulatory hypocrisy, in a recent opinion piece for Time magazine. In reference to the public reaction to comments made by Donald Sterling, owner of the LA Clippers, he writes:

“If we’re all going to be outraged, let’s be outraged that we weren’t more outraged when his racism was first evident. Let’s be outraged that private conversations between people in an intimate relationship are recorded and publicly played.”

In his opinion piece, Mr. Abdul-Jabbar enumerates previous instances—part of the public record—that reveal objectionable racial attitudes on the part of Sterling. These the NBA had ignored. But Sterling was caught in a taped conversation asking his girlfriend to not broadcast Instagram photos of herself with Mr. Magic Johnson and other black athletes:

“You can do anything. But don’t put him on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.”

THAT—and nothing else about Sterling’s past record—was too much for the NBA, for the sports media, and for the American public. Insisting that Sterling’s remarks were “contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver imposed a multi-million dollar fine, a lifetime ban, and began proceedings to force Sterling to sell the LA Clippers. (Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2014)

Anyone who has lived under the oppression of a totalitarian regime cannot but be repulsed by the national reaction to this private revelation. In the early years of the Cuban Revolution, poet and novelist José Lezama Lima—patriarch and mentor of young Cuban writers—was confronted by a State Security officer with an audio tape which revealed that Lezama, in an after-dinner conversation with guests at his house, had compared the Castro government to the “dirty tribunals of the [Spanish] colony.” Lezama answered:

One day after-dinner conversations, and even lovers’ spasms, will become figures of political crime. You, Mr. Lieutenant, … have me in your hands. (Heberto Padilla, La mala memoria, Barcelona: Plaza & Janes Editores, 1989.)

More lenient or more enlightened than the American public, the Castro government did not proceed against Lezama at that time; but in these United States—the cradle of liberty!—Lezama’s prophecy has become true.

José Lezama Lima.

José Lezama Lima.

The intimate context of the comments—a conversation in which a 31 year-old woman referred to the multimillionaire, octogenarian Sterling as “honey,” “baby,” and “sweetie,” set fire to the perennial American obsession with money, sports, sex, and sex between the races. Commercial sponsors took flight. Players threatened boycotts. And with every righteous protestation by sports columnists, with every public statement egging on the NBA Commissioner and pillorying Sterling, the voice of the Devil was whispering: “See what we do to racists? WE are NOT!”

It takes no moral fiber to clobber a man when the entire nation is pursuing his demise like a pack of wolves incensed by the blood of an old and defenseless caribou. Even more disturbing is the generally assumed premise that public scorn heaped upon an apparent racist is proof of a commitment to diversity. It is no use to weed the tares from the garden, unless the wheat seeds are also sown.

            (Here the whistle blows, and it is halftime.)



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