Race, Respect and the NBA

By Samuels, Allison | Newsweek, December 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Race, Respect and the NBA


Samuels, Allison, Newsweek


Conflicts over money and control have kept the lockout going. But there's been another X-factor: the divide between white owners and black players.

At Magic Johnson's annual Christmas bash last week in Los Angeles, the mood couldn't have been more festive. Johnson playfully belted out hits by Al Green, while groups of NBA players mixed with the elite of black Hollywood. Yet as the NBA lockout reached its 162d day, some players shared words of frustration and anxiety. "It's hard getting used to being home this time of year,'' said Laker guard Derek Fisher. A little later, with the deejay spinning the rap hits of the Notorious B.I.G., some began to speak more pointedly about one of the hidden tensions underlying the lockout: race. "I think a lot of my peers have a chip on their shoulder with the white owners," said one top star. "I agree with that, up to the point that it hurts us. It's time to play.''

Early last week it was still ugly ball. Superagent David Falk's company announced that a charity game scheduled for Dec. 19 would benefit both UNICEF and the players union, whose average member earns $2.6 million per year. When critics blasted the players for putting their needs alongside those of starving children, the organizers said UNICEF would get the whole take. But the PR damage was done. Most disheartening, the league canceled this season's all-star game.

The two sides have had serious issues to resolve. The players want to increase their percentage of gross revenues; the owners want it reduced from the current 57 percent. That and the "Larry Bird exception,'' which allows teams to pay their own veteran free agents in excess of the salary cap (the owners want it eliminated), are still the biggest points of contention. But many players say that racial tensions are exacerbating the adversarial spirit of the talks. In locker rooms around the league last year, a popular hit was the rap "Money, Power and Respect," by Lil' Kim and the Lox. Now some players complain that's exactly what the mainly white owners don't want them to have. The current labor battle, they say, is not just for money and control of their craft, but for their manhood. "At this point, it's about power and respect,'' says the soft-spoken San Antonio Spurs guard Avery Johnson, who has attended many bargaining sessions. "That's what both sides are fighting for, and that's where we're stalled.'' League Commissioner David Stern denies that race has been an issue. "This is a collective-bargaining dispute--no more, no less," he says. The owners are not permitted to talk to the press during negotiations. But for many players, racial tensions between the predominantly black athletes and predominantly white owners have long been a quiet reality. For years this was tempered by millions of dollars made and continuous crossover success. Now there's been a breakdown. "I think there is a perception from the owners to even some fans that we're blacks who should be happy with what we got, fair or not,'' says Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning, a key member of the negotiating team. "There's a lack of respect given us in large part because we're athletes. I'm not saying it's all about race because it's not--but it plays a factor.'' Many players say lack of respect for them filters into the negotiations. "I think the owners look at us as black, ghetto guys with tons of money that we don't deserve,'' says New Jersey Net Sam Cassell, who has also attended meetings.

As an example of this lack of respect, players point to a 1997 salary negotiation between Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. …

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