The Cavs’ Championship Parade Was Also a Celebration of Black Bodies

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1.3 million people showed up at the biggest party the state of Ohio has ever seen to celebrate LeBron James and his band of Cavaliers, who together brought Cleveland its first championship in 52 years. It looked like fun: Kevin Love had WWE title belts slung over both shoulders, Kyrie Irving flung his strapback into the crowd as it roared in adulation, and James got to let loose in public for probably the first time in his thirteen-year career. The spoils of victory aren’t limited to whooping as loud as you want, but achieving that freedom–of burden, of narrative, from basketball thinktankery and its smuggish progenitors –might be the best part. It was certainly hard-fought.

One storyline everyone enjoyed was the ongoing shirtlessness of J.R. Smith, the Cavaliers’ delightfully capricious but embattled shooting guard. After playing a key role in their Game 7 victory (I think he scored 10 of the Cavaliers’ first 12 points after halftime), J.R. was not seen wearing a shirt for like, the first 72 hours after the final buzzer sounded on Game 7. This was entertaining because it was J.R. doing him, in a winning way–acting silly, in other words, without “acting out.” Supposedly, we got to enjoy J.R.’s foibles without compromising on our overly moralizing ideas of what “winning” behavior looks like–ideas which when put into words are often racially coded, and which have been used to antagonize Smith pretty much from the moment he entered the draft out of high school. Here’s a quote from a story about Smith being benched by Denver Nuggets coach George Karl in the 2006 playoffs.

According to the newspaper, Smith’s mistakes throughout the series have bothered Karl, leading to his decision to bench him for Game 5. Karl seemed perturbed by Smith’s 3-pointer with 25.7 seconds left in Game 4 on Monday night with Denver trailing 93-89.

“I have no idea what planet that came from,” Karl told The Associated Press. Karl said he had drawn up a play to get the ball to Iverson or Anthony.

“And then, of course the one with eight seconds to go, from 50 feet,” Karl said. “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me.”

Despite his refusal to suppress his stylistic inclinations at the dour altar of George Karl (and by the way, when you’re down 4 with 25 seconds left you should definitely be shooting three pointers), J.R. Smith now has one more championship ring than his old coach, who’s currently unemployed. There still may be something troubling about J.R. infatuation subsisting on a typecast of him as a fool, but to quote LeBron, Imma let that go. Let’s conclude here: J.R.’s celebration can be instructive about winning behavior and doesn’t need to be dissonant.

I’m really digressing. Here’s what I came to say: J.R. marauding around town without a shirt was important(!) because it was a black man proudly showing his body in public, in a place where black bodies have always (and in the news only recently) been under attack. Violence against blacks in Cleveland is pervasive and debilitating. Many people know the story of Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African American child shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun; know, too, that Cleveland is among the most segregated cities in America (possibly #1 in that category):

The white poverty rate in Cleveland is 9.3 percent, and the white unemployment rate is 5.4 percent while black people in the city have a poverty rate of 33.6 percent and an unemployment rate of 20.2 percent.

When LeBron James says he’s doing it for Cleveland, for Akron, for the state of Ohio, he’s not just talking about ending a title drought. There’s more suffering in Cleveland than 50 or even 500 losing seasons could hold, and Cleveland’s historical trauma cuts more deeply than Craig Ehlo. Almost none of that goes away because the Cavaliers won an NBA Finals; that’s what the bread and circus is all about. Still, the feelings of unbridled joy that come from celebrating a championship may resonate more deeply in Cleveland when the team is led almost entirely by black men. LeBron is not just a hero for The Land, he is a black hero, and that can’t be skirted on this occasion.

J.R. Smith, perhaps the most heavily tattooed NBA player (which only makes him more of a lightning rod for criticism), was comfortable parading his black skin through Cleveland. In doing so, he helped us celebrate race as a central feature of the Cavaliers’ coronation: he is black, he is a champion, he is free. And so was Iman Shumpert, sans shirt at the parade and also rocking a super-high top fade. They are basketball players–the body is the locus of their labor. If a divided city is going to unite in the town center, let them cheer their deliverers as they are.

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Being black in public, unmolested, shouldn’t be a privilege only afforded NBA champions. But in Cleveland, it has been.

 

 

 

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“The corner three is the most sickening shot in basketball”: Talking to Jimmy Goldstein, NBA Godfather

The first basketball game I ever went to was an otherwise meaningless January tilt between the Seattle Supersonics and the Los Angeles Clippers. Of that game, I remember two things: a buzzer-beating Gary Payton dunk sending the game to overtime (it was almost definitely Desmond Mason who actually did this, but Payton is what I remember), and a fan sitting courtside behind the basket who from the nosebleeds looked like a scarecrow. I figured with some disappointment that I would likely never find out who that person was.

That fan, of course, turned out to be Jimmy Goldstein, the incomparable culture mogul who’s developed a minor cult following in the past few years as an NBA superfan and high fashion aficionado. Watch enough high-stakes NBA games and you will inevitably spot Jimmy mingling with players in pregame layup lines, seated contentedly with an Eastern Bloc supermodel or just standing in silent observation of the athletic marvels before him. He goes to over 100 games a year, which includes a rigorous travel schedule during the NBA playoffs. He’s a fan’s fan, and a player’s fan. He’s not doing it for the ‘gram, and he’s not complaining about back-to-backs.

It’s not just that he’s the Forrest Gump of Hardwood Classics, it’s that he knows everybody, from max-contract guys to rookies, from head coaches to color commentators. I’ve seen more than one fringe D-Leaguer find Jimmy during warmups and give him a hug. He’s loved by everyone who makes a living or once made a living in the NBA. I’ve long wondered what’s made Jimmy so popular, if he was some sort of Worldwide Wes-ian éminence grise. I didn’t ask him that, but I did get a clear answer about why everyone takes to the guy: he’s good people, plain and simple, and he loves basketball.

My first time on the court reporting at an NBA game, it seemed appropriate to go see Jimmy. He was willing to pause his enjoyment of the shootaround before Game 5 of the Clippers/Blazers series to talk to me for a piece about the Clippers playing through injuries, which you can read at VICE Sports.

Below is the transcript of our interview, edited and condensed a touch.

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Louis Keene: The Clippers are playing without Blake and Chris Paul. Do you feel like you’re seeing an inferior product without them?

Jimmy Goldstein: It’d be a real upset if they pull through the series now, but I’ve seen the second unit play really well this season. [They beat] Utah — well, they rested the whole first team — but I don’t see how they can win two more games.

Do you think Golden State can make it through without Curry?

Curry will be back before they have any must-win games, so I don’t think that will affect them at all. It’s not a very serious issue, from what I’ve read. I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back earlier than 2 weeks.

What designer are you wearing right now?

Saint Laurent.

What about the hat?

The hat I had custom-made in Paris, I designed it myself.

That’s pretty legit. How am I doing as far as my dress for the game?

A little too conservative for me.

What can I say…it’s Nordstrom. Who did you bring to the game tonight?

Actually, I was down in Houston over the weekend for two games, and a friend from Houston treated me to two courtside seats, so I have to reciprocate tonight, so he’s coming. No girl tonight.

You’re donating your house to LACMA. What caused you to do that, and where are you going to live?

Well, it doesn’t take effect until I’m not around, so nothing is going to change for me at all. I wanted to see the house preserved, I wanted to see the house continue as being a landmark house in LA, with architectural tours and photoshoots and all the things I’ve been doing, I want that to continue.

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Do you remember Jon Buscemi, the shoe designer?

Yes.

I used to work in an office with him, and he told me this great story about when he went to your house. He said your house is all silver and gray…

Well, everything in the house is concrete and glass. That’s the way it is.

And he said on top of the ceiling, you have a picture of Kate Moss wearing a Jimmy Goldstein t-shirt. 

Well, it’s not on my ceiling, but it’s on my countertop. 

He said that you walked in, while he was preparing for the photoshoot, and you said something, and it was this great line, and I don’t remember what it was.

(laughs)…It’s amazing what he’s accomplished. 

Yeah. His shoes are fabulous. Do you own any?

Yeah, he came over and did a photoshoot of me wearing the shoes. I didn’t know what it was all about. I just went along with it. (laughs) At that time, he was just starting. 

Yeah, he had a desk in the office I was working in, and he had a bunch of cool fabrics on it, and I just started talking to him, and he’s a great guy. I like him. How did you get in touch with him?

I don’t know…someone else set it up. He asked if I would pose for some photos for the shoot.

Have you ever had any great basketball games on the very cool basketball hoop you have at your house?

No, that’s one thing that hasn’t happened.

You gotta get a 3 on 3 tournament or something!

It’s not in the greatest condition because the driveway is sloping. I’ve got this amazing new tennis court, and I was originally going to have a hoop on the tennis court.

Do you play?

I stopped playing basketball. I’ve always been a tennis player since I got my own court a few years ago, so now I just play tennis. So I’ve stopped shooting hoops. But I used to be a good shooter.

You’re originally a Milwaukee guy, right? I lived in Madison the last few years ago, and I love Wisconsin and I love the Bucks. Do you think they have a chance at taking the East next year?

Taking the East?

Yeah! …I mean it! I think they can!

Well that’s…a little too much. But I haven’t watched them very much.

Do you ever get consulted on rule changes?

I wish I would. Adam Silver, for example, last year, asked me about the intentional foul rule. He wanted my opinion. But in general, they haven’t.

What did you say?

I’ve got some mixed feelings about it, but on balance I said they should change the rule. It looks like he will.

You could have altered Clipper history if you had said, we have to change this. The whole NBA was in your palm! I think the rule they should add is let people goaltend on the rim.

I don’t like that rule.

That’s how they can get the athletes back in the game.

One thing I’d like to see, which no one ever talks about, is to get rid of this [points to the corner three]. Let the line just continue its normal course.

Ohh, so that there’s no corner three.

The corner three is the most sickening shot in basketball.

Why?

Because the guy’s always wide open, it’s almost like a free throw.

That’s true. But why sickening?

Because I like a shot that’s…talent. I don’t like an easy shot.

I think that’s a really cool idea. That could change the NBA too – offenses are designed around this shot.

Yeah — a guy is standing here almost every possession.

Do you think the Clippers have any advantage tonight, with an underdog profile?

The advantage they have is psychological, because I noticed in game 4, they were more uptight than I’ve ever seen them. From Doc Rivers on down. I watched them in warmups, there wasn’t one smile anyplace. And they showed it in the first quarter, when no one except Chris Paul could hit a shot. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers were loose because no one expected them to win. Now, they’re expected to win, so we’ll see how that affects them.

That’s interesting – we saw that in game 3, when the Clippers gave away a late lead. That was it for them.

I think they’ll play playground style tonight.

Do you think Jamal can go for 50?

I would love that.

In Praise of the Giannis Antetokounmpo Point Guard Experience

jabari and giannis.jpgWhen I was reporting my first article on the Bucks, Mike Smith, who does color commentary on Clipper broadcasts, pulled me aside in the tunnel before tipoff. “How do you pronounce Giannis’s last name?” he asked me. “Ahn-te-to-koom-po?”

Yeah, that’s fine, I told him. “It’s actually more like Ah-detto-koom-bo, but the way you said it will be good enough.” He nodded. “Just make sure you get the Farsi names right.”

He got the joke.

I wrote about the Bucks’ very tall, very talented dude making a name for himself as a point guard. More than that, it’s about the retro-futurist basketball fantasy Giannis is finally beginning to fulfill.

Excerpts from this article were featured in a post on NBA.com and in the Bucks’ game program. V cool.

Cheering Together, Drifting Apart: The Future of Basketball in Milwaukee

I made my first foray into sportswriting over at VICE Sports with this piece on race, class, city politics, and the professional basketball franchise in the middle of it all.

Read it here.

I lived in Wisconsin for two years after I graduated college. It wasn’t quite Wallace Stegner’s Wisconsin, but it wasn’t really Scott Walker’s Wisconsin either. It didn’t feel like Walker’s Wisconsin, at least.

That’s mainly because when you’re living comfortably, taking healthy bites of your student loans and telling yourself that’s why you’re there, reading shit by Wallace Stegner, and convincing yourself of a Pynchonian conspiracy you’ve invented at work so that you can place yourself in the middle of it and still feel authentic seeing yourself in the SmartTV glare, the cruelty of The Way Things Work for everyone else sort of recede.

Still, whether I could feel it or not, Walker’s Wisconsin was very much what it was. Only my expeditions to Milwaukee – where Walker built an ultraconservative, dog-whistling talk radio constituency in the early nineties – to watch basketball provided reminders of how broken the system was, and still is.

I’m not living that cozy, detached life anymore, relatively speaking at least. I miss the Bucks, I miss the house of crumbling concrete they plan in, and I miss the city and state where they play half their games. I think this article gives that away. But I’m happy to be thinking about the bigger picture now, and writing about it, too. I hope it means something to you.

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Help rarely comes from above.

Thanks to the very gracious Bucks PR team, which went above and beyond for a rookie reporter, and to my marvelous editor at VICE Sports, who believed in the story.