RACE-BASED DREAM TEAM SELECTIONS? I DON’T SEE ITJuly 2nd, 2012
One of the things I’m hesitant to do is read an opinion piece, find I disagree with it, then re-brand the subject with my own opinion, in effect saying, No, your opinion is wrong but my opinion is right.
But the piece by Jason Whitlock, which I’m not sure he considers to be fact-based, opinion-based, or some combination of the two, moves me to respond. Also, I’m tangentially involved since Jason mentions an “exhaustive book” about to be released, and that is mine.
First, here is the link to Jason’s column:
Jason declares that the exclusion of Isiah Thomas from the Dream Team and the collective inclusions of John Stockton, Chris Mullin and Christian Laettner were of a piece—“the intentional, calculated whitening of the roster” in Jason’s words. If I read subtext correctly—and journalists are pretty damn good at subtext—Jason did talk to a source who told him that there was an unspoken racial quota.
I simply don’t believe that and think the column is—sourced or unsourced—wrong. It theorizes that a conspiracy, presumably among the Dream Team selectors, made the team more white than it should’ve been. It was 67% black, but I guess that misses some sort of cutoff.
First of all, I discard most conspiracy theories because in my experience institutions are rarely organized enough to be conspiratorial about anything. For 40 years I’ve heard complaints about conspiracies at various places where I’ve worked (“Your whole newspaper hates our high school team!” “Your magazine never writes nice things about Detroit!”) when, in point of fact, we had a hard time agreeing on where to get takeout.
Let’s do the easy one first: Laettner was on the team because the committee wanted to offer one spot to a collegian, a sop to the traditionalists who hated the professionalization of Olympic basketball. Some think that sounds crazy now but remember that in sending our pros we were changing a 60-year tradition … and change is hard. Laettner was the best college player at the time, better than Shaquille O’Neal, and, more to the point, a veteran of USA Basketball touring teams. Did the influence of Mike Krzyzewski, a committee member and Laettner’s college coach at Duke, make a difference? Let’s say it did (and I’m not even sure of that), but it doesn’t speak to race; it speaks to a form of nepotism. (Dukeotism?) I wrote it then and I write it now: If they were going to have a collegian, it should’ve been Christian Laettner.
Now, no one with a functioning cerebral cortex believed that Laettner would be a better pro than Shaq. But the committee was not looking for the “best future pro player.” It was looking for the best representative of the college game and that was Laettner. (Even if he did act like a pompous ass from time to time.)
David Dupree, a respected NBA reporter who worked for the Washington Post and USA Today, and who is African-American, adds this: “The college kid was by definition going to be the whipping boy, the one carrying the bags and all of that. How would that have looked if it was a black man?”
On to Mullin. From the beginning coach Chuck Daly was infatuated with the lefthanded sharpshooter. Others on the committee weren’t that set on Mullin but Chuck was, and I have never heard anyone suggest that Daly was a racist. He was, however, a man who coached a great team (Isiah’s Pistons) that sometimes had trouble making outside shots. It sounds ridiculous now, but one of the concerns going into the 1992 Olympics was that opponents would zone the Dream Team and jump shots would start clinking and clanging and there could be trouble. Okay, the Dream Team won every game without being challenged, but I’m telling you that people were worried about perimeter marksmanship, particularly Daly, a serial worrier. He saw Mullin as the answer.
That brings us to the thorny issue of Isiah Thomas and John Stockton. As I see it, yes, there is a connection between the two. But it is not racial.
Whitlock writes that “We’ve wasted the last three weeks reliving Michael Jordan’s alleged vendetta against Zeke [Isiah].” I’m not sure what “alleged” means in this case because there is no “alleged” about it. Jordan didn’t lobby to keep Isiah off the team—as I see it, he kept Isiah off the team, with a little bit of help. (The details are in Dream Team.) And I’m pretty sure that Jordan, a black man, can’t be considered a racist for wanting to exclude another black man. You can call Jordan selfish or devious or any number of other things. But not racist. Jordan had the same feeling about Isiah that many of the other Dream Teamers, black and white, had—he didn’t like him. I’m not saying it’s fair; I’m saying it’s reality.
Now, it is my opinion that Stockton would not have been on the team if Isiah had been selected. But Dupree doesn’t even agree with me on that score. “When I read Jason’s statement that ‘Anyone with a brain realizes Thomas was a better player than Stockton,’” says Dupree, “I say, Excuse me? I have a brain and I don’t think that.”
One of the biggest misconceptions from that era was that Stockton was a darling of the NBA. I saw that exact phrase written several times and almost fell off my chair laughing. In fact, Stockton—a stubborn man who didn’t give a damn about public relations and was unwilling to do anything he didn’t want to do—was an utter pain-in-the-ass to the league office. But Stockton was a great teammate and, because so many did not see Isiah in that light, that’s why Stockton went to Barcelona.
The fact that I was around in those days of Dream Team selection and spent two years researching Dream Team (plug department: due out on July 10) does not necessarily make me an unimpeachable expert. But I do throw it out there for consideration. And though I am an old white guy offering up what seems to be an old-white-guy opinion—that stories about discrimination are overblown—I believe that despite my skin color I have a decent track record on race. I have written about a white culture that sometimes discriminates against African-American players. I have written that black players are subject to unfavorable stereotyping. I would never deny the existence of racism in our culture and our sporting culture because I’ve seen it and heard it too many times. And while I’m sure that Jason has done a better job of uncovering racism than I have, I give myself a decent grade on that score.
But no matter how hard I look at the Dream Team, I just don’t see it in this case.