Black Like Me: What Duke vs. Butler means for the face of basketball

04.05.10 8 years ago 84 Comments

Duke's Jon Scheyer

When it comes to sports, I am a certified and admitted racist.

White people play golf and hockey … Black people run track and play basketball … Europeans play soccer … Africans run marathons … Asians play badminton … Latinos play baseball … The Winter Olympics were probably invented so White people had more sports to dominate…

These are the things I was taught as a kid, the things that I confirmed as I grew into being able to watch and understand sports on my own. And while obviously I could recognize the exceptions to the rules and appreciate the diversity in every sport without seeing things in such black-and-white terms, some lessons don’t go away. To this day, I’m prone to root for NFL teams with Black coaches and/or Black quarterbacks, and perk up during a Major League Baseball game when one of the few Black men is up to bat or pitching.

Naturally, the racism extends to basketball. Way before White Men Can’t Jump, I was taught that White men could shoot. And if there was any brotha who preferred the ’80s Boston Celtics over the “Showtime” Lakers, or Duke to the Georgetown Hoyas, it was nobody I was raised around.

Tonight’s NCAA national championship game will be a watershed moment for sports racists like myself. When Duke and Butler tip-off with up to five White players on the court, it’s going to be like Glory Road in reverse. Hoosiers. but if the big bad Black team from the city was watching the state title game from the stands while Hickory High played its crosstown rivals from East Hickory. (And don’t get it twisted, Hoosiers was as much a movie about race as Rocky.)

Over the weekend, as Duke put the finishing coat on its Final Four win over West Virginia, I talked about it with some White colleagues. Did this mean anything? Does this say anything about the current state of the college game, or of basketball itself? Is this going to be a moment that, years from now, is credited with sparking a ressurection of the joked-about-but-kinda-true dying White American basketball player? I thought about the thousands of White kids who will have this Duke/Butler game as one of their earliest basketball memories, and what it will mean that so many of the players on the court look like them. I thought about that guy in Georgia who’s trying to start up an All-White basketball league, and whether this lends credence to his theory that “White basketball” (fundamentals, shooting, strategy over athleticism, etc.) is still the right basketball.

But that’s probably going too far. If anything, I think Duke/Butler just confirms what myself and other writers at Dime have been saying all season — that parity in college basketball is real. You don’t need to have a crew of ridiculous athletes like ’96 Kentucky or ’06 UConn to make a run at a national championship. You don’t need two or even one Lottery pick on the roster. A team full of guys like West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks — 6-9, long, multi-positional, can jump out of the gym — is not necessarily more valuable than a team full of guys like Duke’s Jon Scheyer. The fact that Duke and Butler and Cornell and St. Mary’s can not just win games in the NCAA Tournament, but win games convincingly against more athletic (i.e. Black) teams just proves that it truly is anybody’s ballgame in college.

Will this translate to the NBA? Will guys like David Lee and Troy Murphy pop up on more rosters? Will college players like Scheyer Brian Zoubek and Butler’s Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard use this year’s Big Dance to propel themselves — and maybe even a new perception of the White ballplayer — to a different place in the League? Possibly.

But only if they kill it in the pre-draft combine tests.

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