The Miami Heat is in good company today, for they are now firmly established among those teams in recent sports history that have polarized the country in the way they are perceived and stereotyped by the mainstream sports media.
That club includes the Georgetown Hoyas from the Patrick Ewing era; the University of Miami football team from the late 1980s; and, to a lesser degree, the University of Nevada Las Vega Runnin’ Rebels basketball team under Jerry Tarkanian.
The Hoyas were led by John Thompson, the massive 6-10, 300-pound coach who early on recognized that his team, which won the National Championship in 1984, would be constantly be under attack for being “too black.” The first African-American coach to win a national title, Thompson was assailed for his lack of white players. When the Hoyas played on the road, fans took pleasure in throwing banana peels on the floor at Ewing, suggesting that the Jamaican immigrant looked like and ape and holding up signs that said “Ewing can’t read this.”
In a famous football game in which they lost to Notre Dame by the score of 31-30, the mostly black Miami football team, which played with a hip-hop swagger never seen to that point or since, were labeled ‘convicts’ in a 1988 game that is historically referred to now as ‘Convicts vs. Catholics.’ Today, considering the mounting charges of pedophilia against priests, being labeled a convict by biased sports writers doesn’t look so bad.
Tarkanian fielded astonishingly athletic teams, the best of which destroyed Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke Blue Devils 103-73 to win the national championship in 1990. That team, which donned the baggy shorts before Michigan’s Fab Five, was knocked out of the Final Four the next year by Duke. Eventually Tarkanian was fired for recruiting violations, satisfying many who wondered how “The Shark” lured athletes from the ghettos of Dallas and Los Angeles to play basketball in the desert.
It is part of the good vs. evil, black vs. white backdrop that has long been cultivated by scribes and pundits. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified for bowing their heads and raising gloved fists in protest of the treatment of blacks at the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. In their 1971 ‘Fight of the Century,’ media cast Muhammad Ali as the pro-civil rights, anti-Vietnam devil and transformed Joe Frazier into mindless automaton, programmed to relentless walk behind his left hook while representing pro-war movement and, in the process, destroy the disciple of the hated Elijah Muhammad.
Only a fool — and thousand of them have been calling into sportstalk radio attacking the suddenly struggling Miami Heat — believes that there is no element of bigotry — not racism — in the developing storyline in South Beach.
Following Miami’s loss to Chicago, which dropped the Heat to the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, still six weeks away, Miami coach Eric Spoelstra said that members of his team were in the locker room ‘crying’ after the loss. Anyone who has covered the NBA knows that coaches are prone to hyperbole, and on Monday Spoelstra and the Heat jokingly addressed what became the biggest sports story of the day.
“This is a classic example of sensationalism, looking for a headline,” Spoelstra said after the team’s two-hour film session and workout on Monday at AmericanAirlines Arena. “I really think you guys are probably reaching for this. Guys were very emotional about it in the locker room. Heads were down. I saw glossy eyes, but that’s about it. I think everything else is probably an exaggeration.”
There is the feeling that everyone hates the Heat, and that’s okay, that is part of the passion that drives sports. Teams and individual players have always been polarizing for one reason or another, and in most cases it’s healthy.My sense is that this team remains loathed for reasons far different than those teams of the past, and it’s not necessarily healthy but more of an indictment of where we are as a society. The wound that LeBron James opened up when he foolishly opened up a can of worms and ditched Cleveland for Miami should be between James and Cleveland, not the nation.
But James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — who, by the way, are going to get much better over the coming years and still could dominate the league — usurped ownership and collaborated on where they would take their immense talents. They took control of their situation, control of a system that still frowns upon ceding power to people of color — Michael Jordan is still the only black NBA majority owner — and in a sense they control their basketball destiny.
James stirred the pot when he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “I think so, at times. There’s always, you know, a race factor,” when he described reaction to his choice to join the Heat.
James advisor Maverick Carter told O’Brien, “It definitely played a role in some of the stuff coming out of the media and things that were written, for sure.”
Of course racial sentiments are not the only element, but it can’t be dismissed, not in an era where the New York Post has depicted President Obama as a monkey in a political cartoon.
One day last year James revealed to reporters a barrage of appalling racially tinged rants directed at him on his twitter account that was the equivalent of hate speech. However, the predominant angle taken by the media was not that this was sick, twisted and offensive but that James was playing the race card.
Perhaps we have not moved beyond the point where the prevailing image of the black athlete is that he is, by and large, an infantile narcissist, concerned only with his own self-gratification and personal indulgences.
This is because we have short selective memory.
Lest we have forgotten, I invite you to revisit the crude-but-telling comments of Rasheed Wallace in 2003. Then with the Portland Trailblazers, Wallace scathingly attacked the NBA like no player has ever done before or after.
“I ain’t no dumbass n——-,” Wallace told The Oregonian. “In my opinion, they just want to draft n——— who are dumb and dumber — straight out of high school. That’s why they’re drafting all these high school cats, because they come into the league and they don’t know no better. They don’t know no better, and they don’t know the real business, and they don’t see behind the charade.”
You won’t hear James or Wade say it this way, but you can best believe that some of it resonated.