Every year as basketball season kicks off, I become nostalgic for my own basketball career. Surprising as it might be to some readers, I was a serious basketball player growing up. Over the years, I played on some very select, very good teams.
One experience, though, is especially illuminating given our very race-conscious surroundings. In 2001, I played on a summer league team on which I was the only white player.
Of course, I stood out because of my race. Whenever my parents showed up to one of our games, one of the officials invariably joked that he could guess who my parents were. And all of my nicknames involved the fact that I was white. I’m pretty sure that some of my teammates’ parents didn’t know my real name but, rather, knew me only as “Vanilla Ice.”
Looking back, though, my race didn’t really affect much. There was a little bit of tension over the fact that I started ahead of several black players, but that was never too serious. Our coach was black, so accusations of racial discrimination rang a bit hollow. Any racial strife didn’t get in our way, as we went undefeated.
But, while race didn’t really divide our team, differences in socio-economic status did, at least to some degree. As a middle-upper-middle class WASP, I had been raised in a different cultural milieu than my teammates (a couple of whom acquired criminal records and failed to graduate from high school on time).
This didn’t really affect what happened on the court nearly as much as it affected my performance of the little rituals that surround the game. For instance, I was forbidden from trash-talking, mostly because I once accidentally used the word “lugubrious” in one of my ill-conceived taunts.
However, my upbringing did give me advantages in other areas. I was always assigned to be the guy who complained to the refs about dubious calls. Excuse me sir, I believe you have erred grievously in assigning a foul to my cohort. While I do respect your position, I would only ask- nay, beseech you to be more cautious as the competition continues.
But, most significantly, I brought Diversity to the team. Case in point: during warm-ups, our coach usually played music to pump us up. Each of the starters got to choose a song to play. My teammates each chose hardcore rap songs, while I favored the Smashing Pumpkins. I firmly believe that any time the angst-ridden vocals of Billy Corgan are united with the ghetto-infused dissonance of gangsta rap, society wins.