At Tuesday night’s Warriors-Lakers game at Staples Center, it was hard not to notice the vocal contingent of Golden State fans infesting Los Angeles’s home gym. We’re about a seven-hour drive from Oakland, but the reigning NBA champions command quite a bit of support no matter where they go. They play fun basketball and have the most charismatic player in the game in Steph Curry. Denying the Warriors is like pretending you hate presents on Christmas. Oh, you must be so edgy to not appreciate pure joy. Congratulations on hating happiness.
For the rest of us, no matter our team affiliation, the Golden State Warriors represent an ideal of pure, classic basketball – crisp ball movement, unselfish play, and a quick tempo – but with an eye toward the future. Their appreciation of the three-pointer rankles cranky old-school grouches like Gregg Popovich and ESPN/ABC analyst and former Golden State coach Mark Jackson.
The Warriors personify a league that has embrace what Popovich once called a “circus shot”. The three-pointer was designed by the defunct ABA as a gimmick to compete with the dull NBA of the 1960s and 70s. Now, it’s an intrinsic part of the game and the rare moment in basketball that everyone can understand – both the/r/NBA obsessive and the novice can appreciate the degree of difficulty of the deep three. For pure visceral impact, its only equal is the slam dunk. But there’s much more to the Warriors than just circus shots. Golden State represents a biracial nation that defies the stereotypes and prejudices of the NBA’s recent past.
This week, soon-to-be-retired Laker legend Kobe Bryant admonished second-year guard Jordan Clarkson for “going to the hole like a light-skinned dude”. Clarkson told the LA Daily News that in the moment prior to posterizing Suns big man Alex Len, he thought, “I have to go to the hole like a dark-skinned dude. As soon as the lane opened up, that’s all I could remember.” It’s interesting that Bryant would toss such a racially charged statement at a young player considering his childhood was spent in Europe and he never quite fit in with his peers when he returned to the States. Nevertheless, it happened, and Kobe’s words reinforced a very potent notion in basketball circles – dark guys play the game harder and light-skinned guys are soft.
Think back to the great dunkers of our time: Dr J, Darryl Dawkins, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Shawn Kemp, and Jason Richardson were all pretty dark on the spectrum of black skin tones. When you ponder those names, you think of strength, authority and physicality. These men are the pinnacle of athletic achievement, but dark skin comes with a price off the basketball court. A recent study called Bias in the Flesh: Skin Complexion and Stereotype Consistency in Political Campaignsauthored by writers from the Pew Research Center and Stanford University linked the color of a political candidate’s skin to levels of vitriol from voters. The darker someone’s skin, the more apt people are to assign hateful stereotypes to that person. Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood, Walt Frazier and others presided over an NBA that was hemorrhaging white fans due to the rise of black players that many found threatening – a phenomenon dramatized in David Halberstam’s seminal book The Breaks of the Game. Many of these black players were superior athletes, but their complexion (and their abiding interest in cocaine) was a hurdle for fans to get over.
The NBA struggled to engage white fans for years, but didn’t find success until Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan’s talents and charm were too potent for anyone to ignore. The league flourished in the 80s and 90s, paving the way for a young Kobe Bryant to dominate the 2000s. As Bryant stumbles to the finish line of his 20-year career, he has to witness the rise of players like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Both men are, like Bryant, sons of former NBA players. Both are products of mixed-race families. Both have a knack for the three-point circus shot the blacker, edgier ABA used to win over fans.
Curry and Thompson also have a unique gift for appealing to white fans of basketball. One only needs to google “Steph Curry” to see photo after photo of a family existing outside of the usual stereotype of the broken black home. For the more cynical among us, Curry could be criticized for being “too white” and for shunning more outward expressions of blackness. After all, here’s a light-skinned dude who doesn’t dunk, who wears polo shirts in photo shoots and has popularized a shot that many find to be anathema to the traditions of the sport.
What does it really mean to go to the hole like a light-skinned dude? The NBA is a league dominated by black men. It’s a league that has benefitted greatly from the influence of hip-hop and black culture. Basketball is a black sport and is better off for it. And yet, the divide between the light and the dark persists in the league and in the wider culture. It’s still a novelty to see a Michael B Jordan or a John Boyega as the lead of a Hollywood blockbuster. Dark-skinned black women are even rarer than their male counterparts. The Sanaa Lathans and Taraji P Hensons of the world are more common than someone like Viola Davis.
My own personal story is certainly affected by my biracial heritage. If my father wasn’t white, would it be as easy for me to move amongst white people in a predominantly white media world? I sincerely doubt it. At the same time, I was always forced to make excuses for my lack of physical aptitude. “It must be because his dad is white.” To this day, I cannot dunk. Every year I get older, it becomes more and more unlikely that I will ever be able to. The triumph of Steph Curry is rendering that sort of thing irrelevant. Steph doesn’t need to dunk to be considered great. In that, he shares a quality with Larry Bird – one of the last truly transcendent white players. (Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are certainly on that list, but it’s a short one – and neither of them are notorious for their dunking ability.) Steph is the light-skinned player who shoots jumpers, a novelty in Kobe Bryant’s heyday. But now, that player rules the league. It was hard for me to stomach a crowd at Staples that had any Warriors fans in it, but to deny them is to deny the next stage in basketball’s evolution. Jordan Clarkson can dunk any way he wants to. In fact, he can not dunk too. Hopefully the next decade in the NBA will have room for all shades – black, white, light, and dark – and the rest of the world will follow suit.