The Los Angeles Lakers have won the 2008-2009 NBA championship and as a lifelong fan, I was more than elated when the final seconds of game 5 against the Magic expired. As with the standard leftist critique of sports, I knew that my expressions of joy and passion for the game would be translated into an investment of emotion for something essentially “meaningless,” and nothing more than a “societal distraction.” Being democratically minded, of course I can see how those thoughts are constructed and even see their validity.
However, as someone who spent his formative years delving into the dual worlds of basketball and politics, it’s hard for me to navigate this critical terrain. As a teenager, I spent much of my time playing National Junior Basketball before going on to hoop it up for my High School team. In NJB, I played for a coach who only had four fingers on his shooting hand thus garnering his shot the nickname “the claw!” Between games, practice, and pick-up games in the park, I’d always watch the Lakers of Nick Van Exel and Cedric Ceballos during the playoffs, especially when they went in as underdogs against the San Antonio Spurs.
These early teen years were defined by basketball, but also by an ever increasing interest in the society around me. Experiences in my youth with racist principles, police officers and other things that let me know that I was brown took place all around me. It was the time of the Prop. 187. High School students were walking out of class in defiance of the anti-immigrant measure while I stayed seated hearing their outside chanting voices from inside the walls of boredom in my junior high math class. This was the climate when my mother told me to come watch a documentary on PBS titled “Chicano,” about our people’s movement in search of equality.
These two currents defined me as a young person and stay with me today. There was never a separation nor was there a sense that basketball and politics were mutually exclusive. This was most pronounced when I played for my High School Basketball team and matched up throughout the years against the wealthier school of Brea Olinda in Orange County. Because of a class consciousness that was known through life experience, not by reading Marx, these games amped me and my teammates more than any others. The smugness of Brea labeled our school and its students as “apartment dwellers.” Their campus resembled a junior college. Ours? A steel cage match.
This sense of class, of course, intersected with other divisions that it entailed. That’s the reason why when I was suited up to play against Brea for a game during the Orange League season, I gathered up all my minority teammates away to the side for a special chant. With blacks, Chicanos and even a Somalian all in a circle, I tried to inspire my team with a speech saying how the court was an equal playing field where if we showed enough determination, our team, despite the privilege gap, could prevail over Brea. This ended up with hands all together and the chant “Minorities on 3! 1,2,3, Minorities!”
That’s why I’m ambivalent about critiques regarding basketball and politics. For me, the two have been intertwined for as long as I can remember…