The Most Racialized Team in Sports
By NAVID FARNIA
As a lifelong basketball fan born and raised in Oklahoma City, it goes without saying that the Oklahoma City Thunder are my favorite NBA team. I was thrilled when they made the NBA Finals last season and was rooting hard for them to win the championship; but they eventually fell short to the superior Miami Heat. With that said, I was not upset at all when Miami won it last year.
I love the Miami Heat. LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world. Dwyane Wade, the undisputed face of the franchise before James arrived, made the ultimate unselfish move in 2010 by recruiting James to join the Heat and allowing him to become the team’s new leader. The Heat superstars were widely and unfairly criticized for joining forces, with many former NBA legends saying that they would never have teamed up with their rivals. Michael Jordan was one of those critics. “There’s no way, with hindsight, I would’ve ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, ‘Hey, look, let’s get together and play on one team” Jordan declared. Magic Johnson agreed with this sentiment. Of course, both Jordan and Magic conveniently forget the fact that they teamed up with each other and alongside Bird to play on the Dream Team, but apparently in their minds, representing the U.S. to slaughter their Olympic opponents is not at all hypocritical to their purportedly deeply rooted competitive beliefs.
Despite their detractors in the last few years, James, Wade, Chris Bosh and the others have been resolute and continued to make the best decisions for themselves without listening to all the noise on the outside. And this is what these Miami Heat players are about.
I have been an ardent supporter ever since the day of the infamous “Decision” and the subsequent outrageous racially coded backlash by the media, fans and Cleveland Cavaliers (LeBron’s former team) owner Dan Gilbert. But even with knowing why I support them, I’ve only recently developed the perfect articulation for my reasoning.
The Miami Heat are the most racialized (code word: scrutinized) team in all of sports; moreover, LeBron James is sports’ most racialized athlete. The Heat players are young, Black, intelligent, unbelievably talented and do whatever the hell they want. In other words, they are they have unprecedented agency and will not simply do what society expects of them, like so many athletes before them. In the age of free agency, when players can choose to sign wherever they please, James, Wade and Bosh made themselves free agents in the most literal sense that we ever have seen from athletes of color in team sports.
This is why the vast majority of sports fans (especially many white people) turned on LeBron so venomously after he took his talents to South Beach. His Decision was ceremoniously done in his own way. He defied the intended natural order of things within a culture where athletes are unfortunately too often treated as “Forty Million Dollar Slaves”. This ugly reality is best evidenced in Dan Gilbert’s reaction to LeBron’s Decision, which necessitated Jesse Jackson rightly calling him out, saying that Gilbert’s “feelings of betrayal personify a slave master mentality.”
Let’s not forget, LeBron’s announcement actually made more than $2 million for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, so it’s not as if he even reaped the largest benefits from the situation. Indeed, the aftermath has shown that he didn’t benefit from the “Decision” really at all.
The Heat superstars’ joining together threatened, at the very core, America’s racist sensibilities about having ownership over Black athletes. And while I wouldn’t go anywhere nearly so far as saying they are this generation’s John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Wade, James and Bosh are at least symbolically tied to that legacy when it comes to Black athletes and agency.
In a way, the Heat stars also subvert perceptions of competition in this country. There is an embedded ideology in American society that if you want something, you have to find a way to get it yourself. Even in team sports, Jordan and Johnson’s earlier comments signify this individualistic hyper-competitive mentality. But the formation of this Heat team challenges such notions. Coaches and parents all across America champion the language of teamwork in sports to their kids. Meanwhile, the Heat players embody it. And the reaction they get is instantly becoming America’s most hated team.
After winning the championship last year, the tone toward this team has somewhat changed. Winning usually does that in our culture. Nevertheless, spurts of these racially motivated panics still arise every now and then, particularly when they lose a game and the reaction is a media-driven frenzy of crisis rhetoric.
I don’t imagine this will change. I expect to see the haters come out of the woodwork every time something bad happens to the Heat or every time LeBron does something that is perceived to be deviant from “normal athlete behavior”. That expectation is what keeps me rooting for them so hard.
So although my Thunder have been knocked out of this year’s playoffs, I still watch the Finals between the Heat and the San Antonio Spurs intently. I hope the Heat win because I like their players for what they do both on and off the court (LeBron and Wade have two of the greatest personalities in the NBA and I also appreciate role players like Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Birdman), but I also hope they win because I know what the reaction will be if they lose. It seems to always come with the territory of being young, Black and gifted. And it comes with the territory of being the most racialized team in sports.
Navid Farnia received his Master of Arts degree from the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University in New York. He is an Iranian American who was born and raised in Oklahoma.
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