Editor’s Note: This piece serves as the conclusion to “Race Week”, which focused on the problematic nature of the white Minnesota Timberwolves. I’m only getting around to finishing it up now.
Last night I made the trip south to Oakland to watch the Houston Rockets take on my “hometown” Golden State Warriors. I had a multitude of reasons for driving down to Oakland on a work night. Firstly, the tickets were free (thanks Terry), so that was a pretty decent reason for making the jaunt. Secondly, this was the first time the teams had faced each other since Mark Jackson’s attempt to steal the victory last week in Houston, so there was a bit of intrigue about what was going to occur there. Finally — and this is what got my over-thinking butt into the car after a really long day on the job — was the fact that Jeremy Lin’s return to the Bay (he was born and raised in the South Bay) coincided with Asian-American heritage night. As such, I expected some pretty ridiculous stuff, at least from a racial and political standpoint. I went into the game like a grad student ready to prove that he had done the reading this time, and that some really good points were about to be made.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at Oracle. In my mind, I imagined a situation similar to another one I directly took part in: a home game against the Dallas Mavericks on April 16, 2001, where Chinese player Wang Zhizhi made his Bay Area debut. At the time, Wang was the only Asian player in the league (Yao had not arrived yet), so unsurprisingly, there was an outward, obvious outpouring of nationalistic and racial support for him. Though Wang didn’t have a great game (or really, a great career; he lasted six injury filled seasons before he returned to China), he received a standing ovation when he checked into the game, and got rousing cheers whenever he touched the ball. In the end, the Mavs won that game by about 10, and the biggest story was Wang. Given that experience, plus the outpouring of support Asian fans of the NBA gave Lin when he performed so admirably for the Knicks last season (the much bally-hooed “Linsanity” run), I thought that a similar, predominantly Asian crowd would show up for Jeremy Lin’s return to the Bay, seeing as how it is his home region as well as the place where his professional career began.
But that wasn’t what happened. There wasn’t a lot of outward Lin fans — though he did get smatterings of applause — at the arena. I saw very few Lin jerseys from any of the three teams he’s played for, and though I was surprised at the number of Rockets fans there were, they were mostly directed at the accomplishments of Rockets star James Harden. By and large, most people in the stands were focused on the Warriors continuing struggles, and about ending the four game losing streak (which eventually stretched to five games by the end of the night, due to our now debilitating defensive struggles, lack of focus on defense and rebounding, and unbelievably stupid turnovers). In a final analysis, Lin was at best a secondary focus, and more realistically, a tertiary focus.
Furthermore, the racial makeup of the crowd wasn’t what I had — wrongly, perhaps even bigotedly — expected. There may have been more Asian fans there. It’s hard to know, and I’m not too comfortable offering any definitive assertions. In my uninformed perspective the crowd was diverse; the typical mix of races you might see in a number of neighborhoods all over our massive Bay Area. There were black folks and white folks, Latinos and Asians, the typical folks you see at a Warriors game. And while we might have been vaguely aware of our phenotypical differences — the multude of shades and colors that make us distinct, yet align us with others who match our physical appearance — the biggest, most important marker for all of us was the Warriors swag we were all uniformly wearing, the unoffical badges that identified us as members of the Dub Nation.
When we started Race Week (about eight weeks ago), we asked a number of questions that seemed controversial, but also seemed like questions worth asking given the strange, whitewashed nature of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Andy French asked whether it was so bad to appreciate the accomplishments of those who look like you in areas where that of people are “underrepresented”; a strange, yet true, fact about the predominantly white Wolves. Andrew Snyder pondered the importance of nationality, wondering if we aren’t underselling the fact that that while the vast majority of the Wolves are white, they aren’t American, and perhaps shouldn’t be lumped into conceptions of White supremacy that (rightfully) dominate discussions about opportunity and support for non-White (and non-male) individuals participating in civil society. Finally in our roundtable discussion, we implored individuals to recognize the roles power and privilege play in determining racial politics, both on the basketball court and in the world at large, including classrooms, shop floors and board rooms.
The game last night produced ambivalent answers to these difficult questions about race and the Wolves, and as such, our analytical journey towards the truth continues, perhaps endlessly, onwards. Is it so bad to appreciate the accomplishments of someone who looks like you? Not really, but how you define yourself matters. Even though the starting lineup of the Warriors was nearly as diverse as the crowd itself (including a black man, a half-black man, a quarter-black man, a white American, and white Australian), I would doubt anyone was looking at those markers for identification. Instead, they were wearing the uniforms we were all wearing — blue and gold, with an iconic Bridge spanning across an unseen bay — and we, together, were one, in victory or defeat. Further, while nationality and nationalism undoubtedly play a role in the histories and heritages of the players, they are not the major focus of any NBA contest. Indeed, I saw exactly as many Taiwanese flags celebrating Lin as I did Australian flags celebrating Bogut, or Turkish flags celebrating Omer Asik, or Argentinian flags for Carlos Delfino — in other words, zero flags.
The last part about the problematic nature of the Timberwolves — about power and privilege associated with whiteness, and about intruding in an institution that is associated as a locus of black expression — is, by far, the murkiest. On the one hand, whiteness matters. Racial segregation continues to play a staggering role in just about anything we do, political, economic or otherwise. White people still hold down the best jobs, are offered the best promotions, get into the best schools, and are the predominant “deciders” in American society. But on the other hand, basketball is a global practice, processed through rapidly liberalizing and globalizing economies, and consumed by people who have become interconnected in ways that can barely be conceptualized. Indeed, the game pioneered by White, elite Canadians, popularized by black, urban Americans, and globalized by a myriad of races, nations, religions and regions has become something bigger than the sum of its parts.
In the end, we are left with an imperfect picture; a set of questions and answers that produce more angst than acceptance. The ways we integrate — and the spaces in which we do it — are imminently important, as well as the ways we not only define ourselves, but each other. We are left with a ruddy image, an imperfect new American gothic, standing tall with stoic intensity, producing feelings that stretch, soothe and stifle our own thoughts, and produce necessary tensions in our own imagined communities.
It is a frustrating question, and a frustrating situation. But it’s the dialogue that matters; the journey towards something better, something meaningful for all.