Today, ESPN senior writer Marc Stein wrote a piece lambasting LeBron James for behavior Stein described as “unbecoming” and “unflattering.” Apparently, Stein witnessed
LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. LeBron huddling frequently with Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.
Stein went on to contrast this “unpalatable behavior” to Spurs’ star Tim Duncan’s support for Gregg Popovich, even before the coach was “POP.” I think this is the worst kind of moralizing, patronizing, unconsciously racist reprimand, resting on a tower of unstated and unsavory assumptions with a long history in the culture of basketball. Please read carefully: those adjectives in the last sentence do not refer to Stein himself, but rather to his reprimand, to the assumptions it makes, and to the history of basketball.
Let me tell you a story to clarify why I think this and why I feel so incensed. Back in the Fall of 1981, Magic Johnson told reporters that he wasn’t “having any fun” and that he wanted to leave the Lakers. Less than twenty-fours later, Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss fired Lakers Coach Paul Westhead, replacing him with assistant coach Pat Riley. The next night, as the Lakers took the floor in Los Angeles, perhaps for the first time in his life, Magic Johnson’s own fans loudly booed him.
A disapproving chorus of journalists echoed the fans’ boos. They pointed to the new contract—$25 million over 25 years, unprecedented in NBA history at the time—Johnson had signed during the off-season as evidence that Johnson had grown narcissistic, arrogant and, perhaps worst of all, cynically professional. Johnson was vilified as a “spoiled brat” and a “spoiled punk,” “an infidel,” and a “traitor,” “un-American” and a “Bolshevik,” a “monster,” a “villain” and a “pariah.” But beyond the name-calling, what emerged in the firestorm of criticism was that Johnson had ruined the story, part of which was that Magic played ball for the fun of it and his mega-watt smile proved it.
The ideology of amateurism originated in England where it was a ““product of the nineteenth-century leisure class, whose ideal of the patrician sportsman . . . was part of their pursuit of consicuous leisure.” Referring to the athlete who plays for the love of the sport, the concept came to imply a number of corollary qualities including that the amateur derives pleasure from the contest, participation is freely chosen, the process of competition is as important as its outcome, the amateur is motivated by rewards intrinsic to the sport, rather than by extrinsic rewards such as fame or money and, finally, sportsmanship—a valuation of the sport itself above all else—is paramount. This effectively kept working class athletes, who had neither the resources nor the leisure time, from challenging upper-class domination of sport so that, in effect, amateurism “established a system of ‘sports apartheid’ with white males from the upper classes enjoying the advantages.” Allen Guttman puts it more bluntly: “The amateur rule was an instrument of class warfare.”
Within the culture of basketball, amateur ideals have been applied selectively toward similar ends. Over the first half of the twentieth century, during the period of the consolidation of the modern basketball state, it was amateur basketball, particularly intercollegiate competition, that established a national market for the game and affirmed the core values that, from the time of its creation, basketball was supposed to convey: unselfishness, cooperation, sportsmanship, effort. At the same time, the growth of the college game and the institutionalization of coaching as a profession forced the amateur ideal to accommodate two additional values: respect for the authority of the coach (as an expression of humility and unselfishness) and competitive intensity (not winning for its own sake, of course, which was seen as unseemly, but the desire to win as a mechanism for spurring the passion and excellence that would reflect positively on the larger body—such as a college—one represented).
Because the amateur ideal took root in basketball culture while the sport was still segregated, the values came unconsciously to be associated with whiteness.
Returning to Johnson, media and fan criticism betrays a rage that he violated these ideals first by failing to respect his coach and second, by both getting paid and insisting that he have fun playing the game. Red Auerbach, Bill Russell’s former coach, was marshaled to explain the perils awaiting franchises “when a player is bigger than the organization.” Apparently, a black superstar, like Russell, Magic, or LeBron, can only assume the mantle of coaching authority when a white overlord deems it appropriate (as Auerbach did when he named Russell player-coach).
Coach Larry Brown of New Jersey (later inducted into the Hall of Fame) criticized Johnson for a selfish unwillingness to make sacrifices for the good of the team and therefore violating the moral tenets of Brown’s “play the right way” mantra. Perhaps it’s no accident that the relatively common employment of player coaches in the NBA disappeared precisely during the decade (the 1970s) when the sport was perceived as “too black” and its black players as undisciplined, selfish, incorrigible miscreants.
Another column reminded readers that even as a college player, Johnson had led a group of Michigan State players who confronted Coach Jud Heathcote, insisting that he allow them to implement a more up-tempo style of play. As Johnson was judged to have violated the (amateur) ideals of the sport, sportswriters and fans alike—in perhaps the most telling trope of the backlash—determined that “Magic” was no longer magic (or “Magic”), but rather now just “Earvin.” Thus one Los Angeles Times columnist—under the headline “Just Call Him Earvin Johnson; Magic is Gone”—quoted another:
For the rest of his days, he won’t be Magic anymore. He will be the spoiled brat who couldn’t wait until he owned a team of his own to show his power, the infidel who had to have a coach’s scalp to go with his millions, the traitor who hid behind a false, happy face, and he was someone we loved. That’s the frightening thing.
Johnson’s popularity among writers and fans depended more on his ebullient on and off-court personality than on his exceptional individual talents or his contributions to his team’s successes. Johnson could be “loved”—and recall the importance of love to the amateur ideal—insofar as he joyfully brought amateur ideals into the professional game. By mixing the professional (through the power of his long-term contract and relationship with owner Jerry Buss) with the amateur (his insistence on having fun), Johnson had unwittingly exposed the myth of the amateurs as a ruse and betrayed fans’ love for him. The purveyors of this myth disciplined him accordingly.
Though none of his critics explicitly invoked race, their invective nonetheless reveals a racializing subtext since criticism of the NBA at the time yoked complaints about player apathy and excessive salaries with the perception that the league was too black. In this sense, perhaps, fans and media observers were unconsciously enraged because Magic “robbed” them of something they desperately needed: the image of an entertaining black basketball player who played just for the fun of it and loved everyone while doing so. Or, to put it another way, it was as though Magic betrayed fans by turning out to be “black” after all.
Stein’s piece disturbingly echoes these (over) reactions to Johnson and broadcasts the nasty attitudes that motivated them. Remember, by Stein’s own account, all LeBron did was “essentially” call a few plays or ignore some that Blatt called. It’s not like LeBron said he’d go back to Miami, or burn the Terminal Tower if they didn’t fire Blatt and hire the coach of his choice. So I think it’s disingenuous when Stein opens his piece by asking:
I have a question for LeBron James that I really hope he’ll field someday.
A question that can be asked a variety of ways.
What kind of coach do you want?
Who out there is a coach you’d actually like to play for?
Who could the Cleveland Cavaliers hire that you’d give some meaningful backing?
These are rhetorical questions veiling Stein’s command that LeBron shut his mouth and do like Timmy Duncan.
Perhaps in this, as in so many ways already during his career, LeBron is offending by refusing to be a character in a fantasy scripted by someone else. In this case, he is tacitly rejecting the very terms of Stein’s question, which assumes he must want some coach, right, because, we have to have coaches, right, or everything will be chaos. After all, it is part of the hallowed myth of the invention of basketball that James Naismith’s students were called “the incorrigibles.”
Perhaps, when confronted with such questions, LeBron rightly takes it as a disingenuous power move on the part of critics seeking to preserve a power structure in which white owners buy and sell black bodies, white coaches command black bodies, and black bodies go where, and do what, they’re told and keep their mouths shut unless it is to express gratitude for being #blessed to make with their talents a tiny fraction of what is made off them. “You can’t build your own team! That’s for the owners to do!” “You can’t call plays, that’s for the coaches to do”!
Maybe LeBron wants to be the coach; or maybe LeBron would like a more fluid, horizontal (as opposed to hierarchical and authoritarian) approach to strategic and tactical decision making, or maybe out there is a coach he wishes he had, or maybe he’s just fine with the way things are. I really don’t know. But Stein’s “unbecoming” kind of moralizing, authoritarian, crypto-racist reproaches make me wish that what he calls a “charade” would end, and that LeBron would become the first player coach since Lenny Wilkens and then, after that, the first player-coach-owner since ever.
And If you feel that I’m “injecting” race into this discussion in a way that is unwarranted or unfair, I’d ask you to take a minute to read my post briefly explaining what race means to me. Thanks.