There is a saying about privilege. Born on third base but you act like you hit a triple. Comically, the privileged often act like they earned it when by definition privilege is unearned but inherited. Those that are blessed enough to have it don’t automatically embrace it because privilege is often a pejorative of the have-nots, a dirty word. But Kyle Korver takes the word privilege and gives it the human treatment in a breathtakingly honest piece in the Player’s Tribune.
The subject of white privilege and Kyle Korver isn’t accidental and it’s not an epiphany either, but rather discontent that has been brewing inside him for awhile, since he was in Atlanta in 2015. Then, in those late days of the regular season and waiting for the playoffs, a night in April unraveled everything.
Korver’s teammate Thabo Sefolosha and a few other teammates went to a NYC nightclub to relax and listen to music. They had a game the following evening. Several Indiana Pacers were there as well, having just completed a game. As the club was approaching closing, outside chaos ensued and cops were trying to make sense of the melee. As Thabo was walking away, he and a cop began to verbally spar. He turned the corner where his limo was waiting when he was tackled from behind. A bunch of cops piled on for the beating. Sefolosha’s leg was broken, ligaments torn. He was hospitalized and arrested but vindicated in court. The attack ended Sefolosha’s season, a great one at that. The Hawks won a franchise high 60 games.
It was my very first day covering the Atlanta Hawks as a blogger and I was instantly reminded how one moment can alter the future but, frankly, police brutality was old hat to me. I remembered Eula Love in her doorway and shot by the police over a $35 dollar gas bill. I remembered the Rodney King beating and others that didn’t make the news. South Central L.A. was a killing field of brutality under the LAPD so the Sefolosha beating didn’t shock me other than it was a NBA player.
The thing is Sefolosha mattered immensely to that Hawks team. He was their best perimeter defender. When it came time to play the Cavaliers and have a body on LeBron James or J.R. Smith, they did it by committee and not very well. The Cavs swept the Hawks and damage followed. Al Horford left for Boston. Jeff Teague went to Indiana. Paul Millsap was in Denver and Korver went to Cleveland.
But that is not what Korver was writing about in the Player’s Tribune. He wasn’t writing about sacred moments. He wasn’t writing about how a white three point shotmaker has thrived the NBA wars and how Korver particularly, even in his 16th season, is productive and important, and that when he came to the Jazz, he gave them that second scorer they needed next to Donovan Mitchell.
Korver wrote about not being a good enough friend to Sefolosha. That he questioned why Sefolosha was out at a club that night. That he didn’t first ask if Sefolosha was okay. Korver’s privilege meant he didn’t naturally fit piece A- NYC history of police brutality- with piece B, Thabo Sefolosha targeted because he was black and a NBA player. It’s uncomfortable to admit racism when you are the same color as the racists.
The racial discussions in the aftermath of the Russell Westbrook fiasco meant the Jazz players got together and talked of their experiences with racism and intolerance. Korver realized even as he listened that he could just as easily not want to be there. He didn’t have to be. That is his privilege. He looks more like those who come to see a NBA game than he looks like the players who play the game.
What was striking about Korver’s empathy which has grown over the years of his NBA residency- from second round pick to spectacular three point scorer- is that he wasn’t proselytizing. He wasn’t trying to be woke white guy for benefits. He wasn’t going through a process of self awareness and arriving at a conclusion to manipulate a particular market because of a brand and it just looks good for white shooter guy to understand what his black teammates suffer through. No. His article was more about identity and, specifically, how his has been nurtured by the league so now he is in a place of questions but a harsh truth about himself. His loyalty to the game demands he take a step back and do a self-inventory and then complete his humanity arc.
The NBA didn’t need Korver’s article. It is a versatile league with intelligence up and down the rosters. Backgrounds vary. There are the men raised in poverty and the men who have had luxury all their lives. There are city people and rural people. Married and never want to be. First round picks and the never drafted. White and black in the Western Conference. European and African and Latino in the Eastern Conference. And vice versa. All have personal anecdotes of living in a racialized and often hostile world. It is the NBA continent of every story matters.
From where the league started, all white, all set shots, the array of colors today and the embrace by many cultures is aspirational. But what happens in locker rooms and on the court can only go so far. We all live in the real world and that world often intrudes at an inconvenient time with bullies and racists and liars and crooks. Korver’s article elevated the league as sensitive and thoughtful even in a climate that is often triggered by hate.
Before Korver began thinking about such things, psychologists understood how Contact Hypothesis assists in the reduction of racism and intolerance. Contact Hypothesis suggests that when groups with internal and external conflicts talk with one another and listen with the purpose of understanding and not the purpose of being right they can effectively reduce prejudice. Really, that is all Kyle Korver’s piece is. His way of asking all of us to listen to understand instead of listening to be right. We can all learn when the other speaks.