Sunday, March 21, 2010

Celtics-Lakers in the 80's as a Cultural Marker

My brother and one of my sons have both enjoyed reading Chuck Klosterman. I might well like him myself, but as often happens, my first exposure to his writing put me off and I have never made the effort to get beyond that. Predictably, it was a section my brother read out loud to me while I was trying to do something else – strike one – and made a point he thought it would be good for me to hear – strike two. He was not at all consciously preaching to me, merely, from his perspective, commenting on a subject in which I have a known interest, from a POV he found novel and wished to share with me to help me see the issue in a more expansive light.

People who don’t go to church are not aware how much they preach. Those of us who listen to sermons and Sunday School lessons, who go to conferences or read books whose express intent is to improve us, have a more sensitive nose for such things. I don’t mind being preached to by a person who is aware he is preaching. (There are qualifiers I’m going to add to that in another post.)

I have an ambivalent attitude toward Massachusetts, and Boston in specific. It is part of NH culture to disapprove of anything MA and find fault with its citizens. Yet my personal dislike is mostly for effect. Okay, half for effect. Hmm. You get the idea. They don’t ruin all our children who go down there, just a percentage. But the Boston teams are, by and large, the New England teams. And even I like going to a city occasionally, and I certainly don’t have any other cities that interest me.

Boston is regularly accused of being one of the most racist cities in the country. Southie’s opposition to forced busing – which was 35 years ago – is regularly cited as evidence. Yet perhaps it’s true. The Red Sox under the Yawkeys were anti-black (that was 45 years ago) and current residents insist it’s still a prejudiced place. From this, the concentration of white players on the Celtics starting with the Bird era in 1979 was treated as an obvious sign of the continuance or racism. No amount of counterevidence would convince the accusers that Boston was stocking up on white players – grudgingly admitted to be very good white players – to please its fan base in Boston, plus racists all over the country.

Klosterman’s essay in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs jumps off at this point. He is clearly a bright guy, has wonderful sardonic phrasing, and is quite insightful in reading the culture. He expands the idea beyond racism to a fuller concept of old-fashioned attitudes versus modern ones. The reportage of the Celtics as hard-working, gritty, overachieving players compared to the naturally talented but less-disciplined LA players he treats as not just code words for racism, but for an entire array of values. It was certainly played that way in the media at the time, and that is still the received wisdom today. Klosterman packs the entire clash of cultures into these symbols. A fascinating idea.

I wondered at first if this was more symbol-creation by white people than anything black attitudes were driving. One could no longer be a hippie, but you could get the next generation’s equivalent by being on the “side” of African-Americans. But my research was pretty clear that the resentment of Bird in black communities was real. Adding in McHale and Ainge just “proved” it to them. I had forgotten Isiah Thomas’s comments about Bird, for example. But remembering Scoop Jackson’s comments at ESPN sealed it for me. When the Celtics were driving for their first title in a long time with the addition of Kevin Garnett, Jackson assured black fans that it was finally time to forgive the Celtics, and okay to root for them now. Gee, Scoop, that’s awfully white of you to say that.

So it wasn’t just PC-whites inventing this; they jumped on to a real “cause” in the black community, to show how hip they were. Rooting for the Lakers showed what sort of person you were. More importantly, you got to make assumptions about people who rooted for the Celtics and think of yourself as a better sort of person.

It is tempting to reject the whole idea because the symbols don’t work out as nicely as advertised. LA had a white coach holding the implied whip hand over black players, while Boston had a black coach with his implied whip hand over white players. Boston was the first team to start five black players, and one of the first to have any at all. Magic really was a more naturally talented person than the fanatic, overachieving Bird. Kareem more than Parish. The Celtics brought in Bill Walton, the modern-hippie archetype.

Plus there is something more than slightly insane about believing that Red Auerbach cared about anything more that winning basketball games.

But symbols don’t have to be perfect to get elevated to icon status, they just have to be close approximations and in the right place at the right time. That the symbol isn’t fair doesn’t mean it isn’t what people believe. Contradictory details are ignored, only confirming evidence is kept. So I think Klosterman is right that the LA fans – the national fans; I don’t hold anything against anyone rooting for their home team. You have to, man – adopted the Lakers as saying something about themselves.

Yet that is only one side of the equation. The ready assumption is that the other half must also be correct, and Boston fans were making a racial, even cultural statement themselves. Well, maybe. I certainly never heard or read anyone saying how relieved they were that there was a half-white team doing well in the NBA, but you wouldn’t expect people to. The three people I do know who don’t follow basketball like they did in the old days because they don’t like “how they play” now are all liberals. Three is a small number, but if I’m going to get up to the 80% estimate of Scoop’s about racist fans from my own personal experience, I’m going to have to encounter 12 conservatives in a row who talk in racist code about why they don’t like basketball now.

The modern, hipper fans of Lakers Showtime get half their theory proved. Just not the half they wanted.


mr tall said...

This is a fascinating topic. I tried reading a Klosterman book, but lost interest when all he seemed to care about was the current music scene, a subject I have no interest in.

But I’ve rediscovered him via the podcast conversations on sports he does with Bill Simmons, the espn Sports Guy. Klosterman is Simmons’ best regular guest, because he goes straight at Simmons with unorthodox opinions on genuinely controversial and interesting topics.

In their most recent conversation Klosterman took up the issue of race explicitly. He asked, quite reasonably, why Simmons (and so many other hoops fans) hate hate hate Duke University’s regularly-excellent college teams. Klosterman suggested that it’s because Duke’s star players over the years have been, in a word, white. They’re just the kind of maybe under-talented but hard-working gymrat types epitomized by Simmons's hero, Larry Bird, yet Simmons and legions of other hoops fans mock them and compare them in disparaging terms with ‘cooler’ black players.

Simmons had little comeback; he simply tried to assert that something about the way these white guys play is irritating because they seem arrogant.

I’d recommend a listen; the conversation is in Part 1 of Simmons’ March 5 podcast, which you can find here: Simmons and Klosterman talk about race from the very beginning (discussing John Mayer) but it starts to get interesting at about the five minute mark, when Simmons asserts that white people simply aren’t allowed to talk about race in certain ways.

Klosterman’s point of view on this topic is interesting, and I think somewhat similar to mine. He grew up in North Dakota (I’m also from the small-town upper Midwest) so unless the Klostermans traveled a lot more than my family did, the teaching we received about race relations as kids had no direct application. Outside of Minneapolis/St Paul, there just weren’t anything but white people when we were kids. Klosterman looks at the complicated, self-contradictory views someone like Simmons holds with a kind of detached bemusement, because he’s mostly an outsider to a phenomenon Simmons has grown into a way that's probably more typical of most Americans.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

mr tall, I have an older post on the political affiliation of humor writers, focusing on midwest culture, you might enjoy.

mr tall said...

Yes, thanks for that link! I hadn't really thought about Dave Barry as a middle-American writer, but it's true; that upper NY state vibe certainly resonates with his midwestern counterparts.

I like Bryson (I'm actually an Iowan as well, although from way across the state from the big city of Des Moines, from whence Bryson hails) but I grow exasperated with his political views, which he inserts increasingly in his work (making his Thunderbolt Kid memoir almost unreadable at points). He tries so very, very hard at times to ingratiate himself with a certain type of Guardian-reading, fashionable Labour Party-voting, English faux sophisticate. I've lived overseas (in Hong Kong) for almost twenty years, and I know some members of this tribe, so Bryson's sycophancy seems particularly naked to me.

I've given up on Keillor. What a waste, truly. Wobegon is a fine novel -- incredibly promising. But Keillor's gift has been gradually devoured from the inside out by politics ever since. He's like a character in C S Lewis at this point.

I think O'Rourke's a scream, and agree with your commenter at the other post that Parliament of Whores should be required reading in every civics class in America. It's devastating and nearly profound at the same time.

It'll be interesting to see how things go with Klosterman. He's not quite from the same mold as the older generation, but I get the feeling he's walking a similar line between good 'ol down-homeboy and freshly-minted urban sophisticate.