Perhaps if Gail Miller had issued her homily a month earlier during Black History Month when she wasn’t in public relations mode, perhaps then she really would be heroic, as many in the media are making her out to be. But the Jazz owner responded to an ugly incident that is hardly much different than the other ugly incidents in Jazz fan history where the paying customers show their racial hostility to the league’s African American players.
What happened to Russell Westbrook was vulgar but it wasn’t an outlier, and it wasn’t out of character for Jazz fans, and it wasn’t an isolated incident. In Utah, black players have been berated and ossified and shamed for no other reason than blackness makes certain white people lose their minds. Telling Westbrook he belongs on his knees isn’t the worst thing Westbrook or other black NBA players have heard over the years in Utah. It is just that Westbrook is going to fight back and the media is going to pick it up. This is social media culture. And so you had a Utah Jazz mess.
The fans in Utah are racist. Or, they are well meaning with a bunch of drunks thrown in. Or, they are enablers. Or, everyone is overreacting. Take your pick as to what you think the story is. But players have a different story to tell.
Etan Thomas, the former Washington Wizards forward/center said in the Guardian “I can recall countless road trips looking around the arena in Salt Lake City and being shocked by the faces glaring back from the crowd. Every away building is a hostile environment. But in Utah, it’s different. There are abundantly clear racial undertones to the heckling.”
Thomas then added, “NBA players do not sign up to play for a bigoted mob.”
As Adam Silver recently gloated, less than 1% of NBA fans attend games. 99% have nothing to do with the racist heckling discussions currently sweeping the league and that’s a good thing for the NBA. But the NBA still has an issue as players are no longer willing to Kobe Bryant it and just let drunk and racist hecklers inspire them to drop 50. Today’s athletes have their own brand and rules that govern that brand. When disrespected by racist fans, they are not going to just go get security like they’re in kindergarten and a bully is bigger than they are.
According to FiveThirtyEight, more than 45% of NBA fans (who attend games) are white. More than 80% of NBA players are black. It can be a Molotov cocktail in a country with blatant racial hostility legitimized by politicians in power.
But really, it is history too.
The Harlem Globetrotters (btw they were not from Harlem but Chicago) used to be the only black men playing basketball. But in the 1950 draft the Boston Celtics shocked everyone and drafted a black man, Charles Cooper. Afterwards, someone said to Walter Brown, the Celtics owner, “don’t you know he’s a colored boy?”. Cooper was light skinned. Walter replied the way we’d like to think everyone would reply. “I don’t give a damn if he’s striped, plaid or polka-dot.”
Then, The Washington Capitols drafted Earl Lloyd who would be the first black man to play in the NBA. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was dumped by the Globetrotters because he found out they were being paid less than their opponents and the Knicks picked him up.
Thus began black men in an all white league and as expected, some fans were brutally racist, hostile and angry that black players were in their sport. They heckled and yelled and tossed racial pejoratives and a few sloshed their drinks at them when they ran down the court.
When Bill Russell was a star of the Celtics, his house was broken into, his trophies were damaged, and someone(s) defecated in his bed. In the ‘70’s, many racist fans called the NBA, the Nigger Basketball Association.
Fragile racial relationships between fans and players is the ugly side of NBA entertainment, decades deep, and yet all parties also live in the real world, highlighted by disgraced Jazz fan Shane Keisel. Basketball, either playing it or watching it being played, doesn’t change who you are and what you believe and what your character is. Racists buy tickets too.
A long time ago, John Wooden reinforced the difference between reputation and character. Be more concerned with you character, he said, than your reputation. Because your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.
Gail Miller urged respect when she spoke to Jazz fans. She was speaking for herself when she said Salt Lake City was not a racist community. (SLC is 1.6% black so where and when have the Jazz folks had the opportunity to put racial tolerance to the test?) Gail Miller was leading with her character, albeit a decade too late. But it is not her character that is the problem in Salt Lake City. It is the reputation of Utah Jazz fans.
Her speech did nothing to change that.