If there’s six people jumping me outside the club, I yell, “police, police”. If the police are doing this to me, who you want me to turn to? (Thabo Sefolosha)
If April really is the cruelest month, Thabo Sefolosha was blissfully, naively unaware. In the early hours of April 8th, 2015, the Atlanta Hawks wing left a club in New York City wearing a hoodie after a night out. Thirty-year-old Sefolosha had played in the NBA Finals in June of 2012 when he was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Originally, he was from Switzerland, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls. But now he was in town to play New York, a city that was as diverse as Sefolosha’s heritage, he of the South African musician father and a Swiss artist mother. The Hawks were having a franchise record season, had defied all prosaic expectations, and would win a record 60 games. Sefolosha had a lot to be proud of and not much to be afraid of. The regular season for the most part was over. The remaining games were tune-ups for the playoffs.
Exiting the club in the early morning hour, police were everywhere; there had been a stabbing. Sefolosha was trying to move through the crowd of chaotic partiers and anxious NYPD. He was in the process of giving a homeless man money when he was chillingly swarmed. This is how death begins. Someone hit him in the back. Someone grabbed his arms. His teammate Pedro Antic watched helplessly in the Uber as NYPD shattered Thabo Sefolosha’s leg; ligaments were ripped as he was dragged limping into the backseat of a patrol car. The violent scene in which he was an unwilling actor was not a subversion of reality. It was a familiar and sad truth.
“After they pushed me, basically, it was two, three, four officers on me. After about five seconds I realized they wanted me on the ground”, Sefolosha testified a year later.
Under oath in dramatic testimony, Sefolosha recounted his bitter nightmare. He was kicked in the leg and that tumbled him over like a tidal wave. Swarmed like bees, Sefolosha then was tied up and put in the squad car like a nasty criminal. He was arrested. Sefolosha lost 184 days of his career. He needed surgery, missed the playoffs. It was an ugly moment in his life.
Grandiose and heartbreaking were the Sefolosha consequences in 2015. To the knowing, the punishment was particularly familiar in a city where Amadou Diallo was riddled 41 times for reaching for his wallet; nothing had changed nor improved with the NYPD in 16 years. The culture of violence remained intact.
That it happened in the city where the NBA headquarters are located had little impact on empathy two years after the Thabo Sefolosha cruelty, amid athlete protests against police brutality.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who paid close attention to the Thabo Sefolosha case, delivered his orders to NBA players in 2017, many of whom still find themselves targets of aggressive and racist policing and want to protest their victimhood. Don’t ruin our fans experience with your black suffrage assaults, the Silver memo implied. The intersectionality of race and hatred is not the point we need to be making as a collective group; respecting the flag is the point.
But a question unasked doesn’t mean a question disappears. If a millionaire like Thabo Sefolosha can be beaten by the police, what of the ordinary man without his resources? And why is Adam Silver silent on brutality? He never, ever mentions it by name.
The NBA Cares? About who, exactly?
Two years after Thabo Sefolosha was beaten by police, a 50-year-old mentally ill man was riding a bike in Salt Lake City. Patrick Harmon’s bicycle did not have a red taillight as the local law requires it to have. He was therefore stopped by police and in the ensuing conversation, it was determined he had open felony warrants. I suppose Harmon panicked at the thought of arrest and he fled on foot. Police videotape show him being struck in the back with three bullets until he was dead. The police justify these kinds of things by saying they saw a _____. In this instance, it was a knife. The prosecutor in explaining why the officer who killed Patrick Harmon by shooting him in the back (they could have easily apprehended him in a chase, he was 50) was not charged with murder, said in defense of the cop, he “generally feared for his safety.” Generally is the emotional litmus test now. A vagueness of fear is what gets you killed. In the police video, there was no knife apparent, just a man running without being chased and then being shot in the back three times.
It is hardly a secret that blacks are treated differently than whites when pursued by law enforcement. In the year 2014, 70% of blacks killed by police were not armed. (MappingPoliceViolence.org). In 2017, white males killed by the police were overwhelmingly armed. With white males it can go a lot of different ways; with black males, it is a familiar way. Dead.
The number of blacks killed by the police in 2019 was 235. It’s more than the total rosters of 19 NBA teams. Every other day a black person is killed by the police. If you add in the number of Hispanics killed by police in 2019, the number skyrockets to 349 people of color killed. It is more than the total rosters of 93% of NBA teams.
It’s enough to sway emotions towards anger and bitterness. A few years back during a preseason game, two black Laker fans didn’t stand for the national anthem for their own reasons. They were near their seats as they crouched down in a kneel. Without warning, beer was tossed upon them as cameras rolled for social media’s pleasure. Nationally righteous, two college students at a local Baptist College, Haley Perea and Savannah Sugg, proudly documented their racism and privilege and historical ignorance for their followers and perhaps to get retweets.
“Excuse me, this if for the national anthem you piece of sh—. Take a kneel for the land of the slaves. Disrespect our flag and our country and that’s how we’ll react.” (Haley Perea)
Our country, she said, as if the two men were immigrants. Our. Country.
Silence from Adam Silver.
People lose sight of why people are kneeling. They’re focused so much on the fact they are kneeling as opposed to what they are kneeling for. (Derek Jeter)
In the past, Adam Silver could not say the words police brutality. He refused to own it as a disease. He put it under the column of “social issues” or “players passion” or “community concerns.” Silver’s statements on the subject marshaled back to players “giving back to the community”, a benign way to duck out of the plea: Stop Killing Us. Just as the flag is not what the protest is about, player altruism is a cover for those who can’t nor won’t admit black people are dying in police confrontations. Adam Silver was complicit. On the one hand, he can push a racist Donald Sterling into obscurity and invisibility because of its financial benefits, while at the same time, he protected his privilege. This while living in New York City, a hostile breeding ground for men of color.
Ramarley Graham (shot in the back unarmed). Sean Bell (shot and killed at his own bachelor party). Timothy Stansbury (killed, mistaken identity). Ousmane Zongo (killed, mistaken identity). Amadou Diallo (shot 41 times, unarmed). Abner Louima (sodomized in custody). Nathaniel Levi Gaines (shot in the back unarmed). Eric Garner (choked to death while screaming, I can’ t breathe).
Outside of the geographical center where the NBA calls home the roll call is exhausting. A sample:
Philado Castile. (shot during a traffic stop). Rekia Boyd (shot in the park). Tamir Rice (shot for holding a toy gun). Oscar Grant (shot on the B.A.R.T.). John Crawford III (shot for holding a toy gun in Wal-Mart). Botham Jean (shot in his own apartment).
A runaway slave was slain in 1814. He willingly died on behalf of the system that oppressed him into bondage and seemingly he had no moral conflict in doing so. Desperation required Willie Williams to flee and run into the arms of the U.S. Army in the autumnal passage of 1814. Williams fought in the Battle of Ft. McHenry, a brief but substantial 25-hour fight against the British; the British wanted access to the Baltimore Harbor on a September humid day.
The calculus was more specific than Williams’s patriotism. He was a slave who wasn’t free fighting for a flag that sanctioned his degradation and murder. Yet, Willie Williams traded a life of bondage and humiliation and torture for a life of bravery, heroism, and noble death. He was a part of the 38th U.S. Infantry, paid $8 a month, and a bonus of $50.00.
The next morning, as the British retreated and Williams was dead cold, a hand made American flag flew over the fort. It was eerily quiet, the kind of quiet that signals something of significance had just happened and it needed to be remembered.
In a boat, not far from Baltimore’s Harbor, Francis Scott Key was spellbound and romantic. He had no idea a former slave had died in the battle he had witnessed in front of his bleary eyes. Even if he had known, he wouldn’t have cared. Scott Key believed in slavery, in African inferiority and bondage. He was a crusader against the abolitionist movement. But at that moment not slavery nor Willie Williams was on his mind. Scott Key began composing a poem to excise his emotions. Defence of Fort M’Henry was the title of his notes. When it was set to music, it was called To Ancreon In Heaven. And then…
The Star Spangled Banner.
More than 200 years later, the song written to memorialize a stirring victory is in the crosshairs of sides that have always struggled to listen even in the age of Scott Key. Then there was no equality. But limited freedom. 200 years later there is freedom. But limited equality. If White Americans didn’t approve of Dr. King a year before his assassination in 1967, and the data says they didn’t, 67% of whites didn’t like the venerable civil rights leader King, then there is little hope that 50 years later, the black athlete has a remote chance of acceptability, empathy or understanding from those who don’t walk in his shoes, share his experiences or live his racial life.
Especially Adam Silver.
Everything circles the past. We have been here before with the anthem and struggle. It was 1996, in the romantic years of Michael Jordan’s second three-peat. Adam Silver’s former boss imagined and incentivized a league of individual athletic artists immersed in team concepts but to no avail: Jordan and the Bulls were just better. But in 1996, if David Stern did not have a MJ problem, he certainly had a national anthem problem.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the former Chris Jackson who pulled himself up from poverty and Tourette’s Syndrome, refused to stand for the national anthem. He would not salute the flag. He cited being a Muslim. He cited black oppression. He would not relinquish his beliefs nor re-prioritize.
It’s easy to imagine Abdul-Rauf today in the prism of the woke athlete. But in 1996, Abdur-Rauf was singular, he was alone. He wasn’t stupid nor a reactionary. He took counsel from his advisers but after he made the decision to protest the national anthem he was, of course, booed and racially vilified in arena after arena. The low hanging fruit of the white supremacy crowd, Go Back To Africa, reigned from the high heavens of NBA arenas.
The league was tense. The NBA had overcome the nefarious N-gger Basketball chants of the ’70’s. First Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and eventually Michael Jordan changed the imagery. Abdul-Rauf was bringing to the surface racial hostility David Stern kept dormant in the collective theatrics of his sport. Abdul-Rauf had to be stopped.
But it wasn’t Stern who could do it, who had any impact. The white lawyer who dictated over the league was dismissed by Abdur-Rauf as many powerful white men are because their motives cannot be trusted. It was the players union Abdul-Rauf compromised with. He would stand but he would not sing the Francis Scott Key tribute. He would not open his eyes. He would put his hand over his heart and pray. HIs lips would move in reverence to Allah. Paradoxically, the image was just as defiant, Abdul-Rauf’s mouth praying to Allah, not Jesus. He was booed more, even as he kept his composure, this Muslim who was a traitor to Caucasia.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression”, Abdul-Rauf once said.
Who is buying the NBA ticket? Or more to the point, who among them is on the player’s side? Who sees NBA players as more than an aggregate, more than a number, more than a delivery system for their entertainment or a stand-in for their values? Who sees them as human beings with lives outside of their sport? And who sees them as a whiny nuisance they have to enable, and then when the game is over, someone to disparage?
Those angered by the protests are angered about what the protests are about in real-time. They don’t agree with the premise of racial violence, just like they didn’t believe in the premise of racial violence in 1955 when Emmitt Till’s 15 year old ankles had cotton gin fans tied around them and he was tossed in the Tallahatchie River to sink. They just want it to go away and go back to their bubble world.
All of this fan turning on athletes has at its core a binary choice. The white fan and their military values. Or the black self crying for justice in an inequitable world. Guess which side is going to win?
People who think about sports all the time have a skewed longing for something that doesn’t exist because basketball isn’t life. Basketball teaches the lessons of life, humility, sharing, selfishness, losing, failure. It exaggerates talent and winning. But it is not life at the intersection of agony and ecstasy.
The racial anxiety of black athletes is something you see only if you want to see. There is a continuing belief that white comfort is more important than black equality. By all means, white people should always be made to feel comfortable even when someone is telling you they are dying. Empathy is a one-way street. Not seeing is seeing too.
But here is the truth about history, regardless if it is Muhammad Ali refusing service to Vietnam or Jackie Robinson not standing for the flag or John Carlos raising his fist for Black Power or Colin Kapernick taking a knee: history wins. What deserves to be remembered is always what is remembered. What deserves to be forgotten is forgotten. For the record, athletes, black athletes, white athletes, are a link in the human chain. For the record, athletes are competitors. The line gets blurred when the human part of them begs us to look at them as people. See their fear and suffering. The inequality they are burdened with.
No. The world has not changed even in this chaotic hour. It has not changed, not one bit. But the black athlete has quietly begun to chart his social justice destiny in spite of whatever memo Adam Silver decides to write.