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.