Magazine article The American Prospect

Who's Afraid of Michael Jordan?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Who's Afraid of Michael Jordan?

Article excerpt

One of the blackest players ever to play professional basketball was white.

"Even though he wasn't fast and he didn't go for fancy dunks or anything like that," Dennis Rodman writes in Bad As I Wanna Be, " [Boston Celtic Larry] Bird was one of the few white guys who could play what people call the 'Black Game."' Rodman, who is black, here puts the lie to the sometimes invidious distinction between "black" and "white" basketball. According to this classification scheme, the quintessence of black playing style is Michael Jordan: spectacularly athletic, highly kinetic, and perhaps above all, very vertical. No white man can fly like Air Jordan. The quintessence of white playing style, on the other hand, is Larry Bird: relatively slow, heavily reliant on the long-range jumpshot, a good passer, and completely nonvertical--the proverbial white man who can't jump.

This understanding is widespread even among white athletes. Scott Brooks, a white point guard who plays for the New York Knicks, says, "You have to be a realist. White people can't jump as high." African-American athletes subscribe to it: O.J. Simpson, Carl Lewis, Hall of Fame baseball player Joe Morgan, and current baseball superstar Barry Bonds have all claimed physical superiority for blacks. Sportswriters, armed with the empirical observations of years on the beat, also believe in racial athletic differences. In addition to the ignorantly racist comments of the variety that got television football analyst Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder fired from CBS in 1988 ("The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way because of his thigh size and big size"), there are the more measured statements like this one from the book 48 Minutes (1987), by two distinguished basketball columnists, Bob Ryan and Terry Pluto:

The NBA is perhaps the

only arena of American life

where to be white is to be

immediately judged

inferior. [It is] unnecessary

to have a Ph.D. in

kinesiology to realize that

the average black player can

jump higher and run faster

than the average white


People in basketball don't

really care why that is.

They just know it's so, and

they act accordingly.

It is into this strange context, in which most major sports fans--openly or not--acknowledge racial difference in athletic performance while many policymakers and politically correct theorists do not, that Rodman's book arrives. Rodman does not deny that blacks dominate basketball. His distinction between blacks and whites, however, is not about athletic style but about attitude. "When you talk about race in basketball, the whole thing is simple: a black player knows he can go out on a court and kick a white player's ass," he writes. "What I'm talking about is attitude, and the black player has been conditioned to think he can take the white guy whenever he needs to."

By grouping Bird with black players, Rodman is attributing any racial difference in ability not to innate physical characteristics, but to a socially conditioned attitude that leads to more intensity, more practicing. This attitude- an overweening confidence combined with a strong drive to dominate other players--is not entirely race-specific. Bird clearly had it. All-Star Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, who is white, has it. And so, unquestionably, does Michael Jordan. If more black players than white ones have this attitude, it is for the simple reason that they're driven to it by lack of alternative opportunities. "The black guy from a poor background . . . sees two ways out of poverty: sports or drugs.... The white guy from the suburbs doesn't have the same motivation to succeed in sports." In sum, Rodman says, "Blacks dominate basketball almost as much as whites dominate hockey. I don't believe in the science talk of genetics and all that. …

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