The first thing you notice is the Southern drawl. Then you read about him. You see he was a former wrestling promoter and he’s nicknamed Moose. He talks of the way things were back before things got complicated, and you remember this conversation happening all the time. You think back to the old man sitting on the front porch telling you how things used to be, the only other audience in attendance are the crickets providing background chatter on a warm Southern night.
You are jarred out of this memory by a new voice. The voice of a stranger who doesn’t seem to belong in the narrative you have creatively imagined. This new voice is questioning the way things were, challenging the memories the old man seems to cling to so fondly. He doesn’t believe in the singularity of the man’s remembrance, and you start listening closer and start to critically analyze the man’s agenda:
There will be criminal background checks and drug screening. There will be no tattoos. There will be no crotch grabbing, no throwing middle fingers to fans, and no fighting in the stands. There will be no asians, no latinos. There will be no foreigners. Most importantly there will be no blacks.
It is in this self-imagined world where I allow my mind to drift this morning while listening to Bomani Jones’ interview of Don “Moose” Lewis, the man behind the all-white basketball league currently being created in several Southern cities. Lewis is the man creating a basketball league which he believes Middle America is yearning for, his thesis being that fundamental rules of basketball have been all but lost on today’s manifestation of the game. It is Lewis' belief that the current NBA player does not play a game representative of the type Middle America wants to see. He believes the NBA as modernly played is not the game it was intended to be, and it is his mission to re-imagine the game of our grandfathers. In a move unfortunately devoid of irony, Lewis is attempting make real his vision by completely excluding any non-white, non-American athlete.
It is not that we are dealing with a man veiled in white angrily postulating on a street corner. Lewis is a calm and seemingly well thought out man. He is not an overtly racist, merely a Southern man whose beliefs were first seeded during a generation now out of date. Like so many Southern whites from his time, once those seeds matured into roots his beliefs presumably became unwavering and there seems to be in him a refusal to mature into a modern concept of morality.
The Southern man has found his target audience and during the interview he often refers to this market as Middle America (A few times he goes so far as calling it “Real America,” a term used by talking heads describing a homogenous nature of Middle America in contradiction with the “Melting Pot” theory taught in every school across our great nation). Lewis believes that Middle America is tired of seeing the antics that make the NBA so unpopular in the eyes his peers. Taking basketball back to its caucasian roots is the only solution. Only the problems with this theory begin to unfold when looking at the racial landscape of basketball. While basketball is played by everyone and owned by no one it is the most urban of American sports. The courts of Rucker Park, DC, and Philadelphia serve as a breeding ground of new talent, where courts become stages and athletes perform improvisational jazz solos in harmony with the composed background provided by subconsciously understood structure of the game. It is these courts where we continue the search for our next Dizzie, Coltrane, Yardbird. That player who redefines the context in which we see the game of basketball.
The search continues everyday, in every city in the country (and around the world) by passionate fans of the game. The casual fan, however, has no interest in this search, and the market Lewis is targeting falls directly into the casual category. They are Middle America and they are deliberately secluded from the cities where basketball matures on a daily basis. This isn’t to say we all seclude ourselves in some way. We move to the city hoping the challenges we meet in the midst of diversity and a hectic lifestyle will allow us to intellectually mature, but even then we settle down with a core group of those who are like minded be it artists, professionals, or writers. We escape the cities in hopes that Middle America (i.e. the suburbs) will provide the safety and the comforts of a slower pace provided by structured neighborhoods, but there are always trade-offs.
Suburban living, because of its isolation, becomes insular, and the morality of the suburbs derives itself from an unconscious status quo created to streamline life into a simplistic and unchallenging form. Those who refuse to conform to these structures and rules are socially cast aside. Also, seeing that suburbs are mostly white it is fair to say that the Middle America that Lewis envisions is pervious to the experience of the modern black NBA player. Black athletes, especially those who grew up in the very poor, very dangerous ghettos that exist in American cities had no status quo and survived by creating their own set of rules. These rules may not, and most of the time do not, conform to those of Suburban whites.
Lewis, and by extension Middle America, believes that the NBA is played by thugs and criminals, and since the NBA is the blackest of all modern sports there is an inevitable connection made, a belief that the blackness of the sport in turn causes its criminal nature. Now, there are those in the NBA with criminal records and six years ago a fight did breakout between players and fans in Detroit, but this makes the NBA no different than any other sport. Youtube is littered with clips of NHL players fighting fans, and there is no professional sports association in existence that does not employ athletes with criminal backgrounds. The simple reason for the racial connection is that skin color is the only visible aspect of a player, and casual fans have neither the time nor the interest to understand the nuances of an individual in any sport or for that matter any public figure that commits a crime.
There is another symptom of the ease of Middle America Lewis is attempting to exploit, which is the nature of nostalgia and its role in the development of opinion in suburban society. Nostalgia is the crutch used to simplify the past, and it is this simplification that dictates our opinion of the way things should be by glorifying the way things were. When our world is threatened by the dragons of change we cast nostalgia as the knightly slayer, and through this lens we create a world where modernization and change threaten to destroy our ethical barriers. Adopting modern ideals of morality have always taken time, and adaptation is often challenged by those whose ethics are clearly defined and set in black and white.
Nostalgia, it should be pointed out, is exploited in every aspect of our society. Advertisers paint pictures of the past to sell us soda, politicians harken back to a nonexistent time when American values were of a pure and singular nature, and sports writers use it to argue that steroids have ruined baseball.
Nostalgia is such a powerful tool because we pick and choose the positives of the past while leaving out every negative aspect. Did Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds use steroids? Yes. Did Babe Ruth use steroids? Not unless his booze and cigars were laced with HGH, and this point does favor Ruth yet it should be noted that Ruth never faced a non-white pitcher (people believed baseball could only be played in its purist form by whites) nor did he face a pitcher who himself was juicing. Comparing Ruth or Roger Maris with McGuire and Bonds only works if these factors are eliminated from the equation and the only way that occurs is to remember the time of Ruth and Maris as a time of singular purity.
It is with this seemingly illogical position that Lewis remembers a time when basketball was played in a fundamental way according to what he considers the original rules of basketball. Basketball was played at its technical finest, in the opinion of Lewis, when the league was predominantly white, so the only solution is to return to a league that only allows white players. However, when professional basketball was originally a segregated sport the game was slower, never played above the rim (Lewis credits this to black athleticism which does not take into account the maturation of the modern professional athlete, black or white, through scientific advances in medicine, nutritional changes, and modern workout regimens) and an overall inferior product.
The fallacy in this perception of quality, or purity of basketball under its original set of rules and regulations reveals itself further by analyzing the maturation of the NBA and basketball as a game throughout its history. Without a shot clock basketball was a sport where low scoring and seemingly endless possessions made the game slow and boring. Black athletes were slowly being allowed to exist equally with their white counterparts, even when society refused to honor this equality (In 1958 Elgin Baylor’s refusal to play in a preseason game in Charleston, West Virginia after being denied a hotel room and admittance into the same restaurant as his teammates was viewed by the town as criminal on the part of Baylor and lawsuits were threatened against the NBA). The three point line did not exist in the NBA until 1978-79 season on demand for higher scoring and at one point there was no double bonus that hindered teams from fouling at will to extend the end of a game.
It is easy to see then that time was required for the game of basketball to evolve into what it is today, so the question that Lewis faces is what period of time does he wish to see his new league emulate? What aspects of the games evolution should be thrown out and what aspects should be embraced.
Finally, it is not the responsibility of Middle America to dictate how our game is played, that responsibility lies in the hands of the athletes who make our game better. Those players who challenge us to defy what we once thought was commonplace are responsible for dictating the game’s evolution and there are no better shoulders to bear this burden. At the end of the interview Don Lewis said he has not watched the NBA in years and is unlikely to do so again which was superfluous to verbalize because while listening to Lewis speak, it quickly becomes evident that the game has long past him by. I’m glad it did.