........Ralph Wiley, columnist for ESPN, passed away this weekend at the age of 52. Wiley was perhaps one of the best sports writers around, and he had an uncanny ability to be hip yet incredibly prophetic at the same time.
He had recently written a column about the NBA which was amazing. Wiley could discuss racial issues more thoughtfully and productively than anyone I have ever read. I'll give you an example from this column.
The arrogance, not of the Lakers (although they have it, too) but of the Laker fans, was and is not unique in the annals of American sport. But it is the current rendition of American sport ... four black men, the Musketeers, and their D'Artagnan, Kobe Bryant. But, in the post-O.J. world, a racial dynamic will always pivot the national attention.
This is why I mention the "Two On Two" program airing tonight. It's always good to interview men such as Magic and Bird and Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, to see how they tick -- and from the league perspective, to see if such bounty as the Era of Bird and Magic spawned can ever be reproduced. David Stern would love it. Consciously or not, so would you. I myself once said on the L.A.-based show "Rome Is Burning" that everybody would probably get into it more if Carmelo Anthony, the foil for LeBron James, were a white kid instead of a black one. I didn't say it as an I-wish thing, or as a condemnation.
It is the first way people draw a rooting interest in our nation of fools.
But it is not the only way, as the Lakers joining the Pantheon of the Yankees, Notre Dame and the Dallas Cowboys as America's Teams shows.
Now we have Iceberg Jim asking Larry Bird, "Does the NBA lack enough white superstars, in your opinion?"
This, right after Bird is being one of the fellows, in his opinion, by saying he hated it when a white guy tried to guard him because he felt that was beneath him. There was laughter in this part of the segment, although it was nervous uncomfortable laughter from LeBron and 'Melo. Magic was laughing, but then he laughs at everything.
You know what's troubling about this? You and me. That's what the marketers think of us. Dangle the red meat of race in front of them, and they'll tune in and get the fruits and vegetables and all the stuff that's good for them but that they won't tune in for otherwise. That's No. 1.
No. 2, the timing. I mean, Gray asked this question, and elicits this answer, and there Luke Walton is! I mean, there he is, right in front of your eyes, as the only possible salvation of the Lakers in the NBA Finals! And you can't make a Luke Walton overnight. You can't I-wish up on one. It takes years and years and years of training, as well as many other variables falling exactly into place. It's just like when some of these know-nothings with ulterior motives ask, "Where are the American-born blacks in big league baseball?" And then I turn on the TV and there they are!
Somebody explain this to me.
It seems the only one who cares that Larry is white, is Larry.
No. 3, and somehow most disquieting: A couple of days before, in the run-up to Game 2 in L.A., Iceberg Jim Gray, who is a colleague of mine, a long-time acquaintance, was asking Shaquille O'Neal questions about the Finals and the Laker season, questions that don't get nearly as much media mileage as "Does the NBA lack enough white superstars, in your opinion?" Near the conclusion of Gray's interview with O'Neal, Gray asked O'Neal to characterize the Laker season; and O'Neal did, with the last word he used being "enigmatic."
Good word. O'Neal seemed to try to humorize his use of it by smiling and saying Jim might not feel the use of such a word was appropriate -- if, in fact, he knew what it meant. O'Neal was sort of diffusing his own use of the word, as if Jim would take it as inappropriate, not as a word -- it was exactly the proper word -- but inappropriate for Shaq to use.
The word seemed to throw Jim Gray, who said to Shaq, "Spell that."
I was stunned. Almost as stunned as when O'Neal almost defiantly spelled it perfectly. He's lucky Shaq responded. Responded? He's lucky Shaq didn't drill him. Luckily for Iceberg Jim, Shaq's not that type. Spell that? What is that supposed to prove?
Wait. Don't answer that. Somehow I think it's going to lead to a question about race. Iceberg Jim is not so innocent here; but then again, few of us are. I do wish we'd stop infecting others, though. The moral here, if we can find one under the pile of horsecrap: Don't ask people if they think there should be more white superstar ballers (when they are right under your nose) without asking if there should be more black superstar lawyers, doctors, and sports interviewers who can spell "enigmatic."
Good freaking word, Shaq. Thank you.
We will miss you Ralph Wiley, there is now one less voice out there to really tell it like it is. Rest In Peace.