At a time in which midterm election chatter seems to have been surgically implanted in our collective cerebella, take a minute to acknowledge the return of the National Basketball Association. After a political season that has descended into deep macaca, and a World Series as exciting as watching Dick Cheney nap, hoops cannot come soon enough. If seeing a new generation of players like Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony take charge in the league doesn’t do it for you, here are four political reasons to be excited to chart the coming season.
Stephon Marbury’s Sneakers
The much maligned Knicks point guard is playing this season in his new kicks, the $14.98 Starbury One‘s. The sneaker-industrial complex hasn’t wanted an enterprise to fail this badly since Michael Jordan was still trying to play baseball. Already, Stephon tweaked his foot in preseason and was immediately asked if it was his shoes. Starbury laughed it off, and it’s good to see him smile. I like his shoes and, yes, I like his team. Most people think the Knicks are about to be a disaster slightly less subtle than the Hindenburg. I say they make the playoffs, led by Marbury. If they do, Isiah Thomas should be put in charge of the Baghdad peace process–if there ever is one.
Etan Thomas, Starting Center
This hasn’t exactly been lighting up the message boards, but Etan Thomas, the six-foot-ten power forward for the Washington Wizards just beat out seven-foot center Brendan Haywood for the team’s starting center job. In the preseason Thomas averaged a blocked shot every seven minutes or so and played with more energy than Rey Mysterio on meth. He will be a supporting player for a team that will count on him for defense, hustle and muscle. Why does this matter? Etan is also my death-penalty fightin’, war defyin’, Washington Times infuriatin’ partner for social justice. He has created such a reservoir of goodwill in the DC area that even people disappointed with the endlessly underachieving Haywood are juiced. One DC sports radio host even had to say, “I am flabbergasted that Etan Thomas is the starting center…. As much as I admire everything he does off the court.” Etan has shown how to do politics and sports: by being perfectly clear about where he stands, and by backing up words with deeds. He is also now on the NBA Union’s executive committee. Watch out.
Rookies With Something to Say
Keep in mind, this one has an asterisk, since it may take time to blossom. But in this year’s rookie class we have Charlotte Bobcats forward Adam Morrison, who believes in national healthcare and fancies the works of Che Guevara and Karl Marx; Chicago Bulls forward Tyrus Thomas, who sports the tattoo “No struggle, no progress,” an homage to Frederick Douglass; and Portland Trailblazers center LaMarcus Aldridge, who spent part of his off-season talking to Palestinian kids through the NBA-sponsored Play for Peace program, an offshoot of Seeds for Peace. Give these guys some time, since rookies with too much to say usually end up carrying bags.
Mount Mutombo Erupts
During the preseason, a courtside fan in Orlando called Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo a “monkey.” Mutombo, who hails from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, almost went in the stands to make sure that stopped right away. The great shot-blocker with angry elbows speaks nine languages and had to be convinced to play basketball at Georgetown University, where he was studying to be a physician. He recently built a hospital in his native country, the first modern medical center constructed there in forty years. He is also often mocked on “fan” blogs for his deep voice and accent.
Well, Mutombo wasn’t going to take that or any kind of abuse. After the Orlando game, he said of the fan, “If they didn’t kick him out of this arena, he would have seen me off the court. I will not accept that. We are not in the ’60s. People have paid the price for us to be where we are today. For him to call a black man a monkey in the middle of the game–he was in the second row–for him to stand up and call ‘Mutombo the monkey’ is an insult. It insulted my integrity, my body, my family, my race…. If they fine me, I will go straight to the stands next time and (mess) somebody up.”
Then Mutombo invoked a little history. “Guys like Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Bill Russell, Oscar Robinson–they don’t want to see this happen today, to our generation, what they witnessed in their lifetime when they were playing to pay the price for what we have today. It’s sad that this is still going on in America.” Sure enough, Dikembe was not fined, and the heckler has issued an apology, pledged $5,000 to the charity of Mutombo’s choice and has been banned from NBA arenas for the season. Let the message be heard: Save the racist bile for your border patrols, not the arenas of the NBA.
Politics? Controversy? Rebellion? Resistance? These impulses shouldn’t be the sole property of Super Tuesday and our lonely dance with Diebold in the voter’s booth. In fact, the roiling political waters might be stirred up all season long in the NBA.