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David J. Leonard | With thanks to NewBlackMan


Thursday, June 2, 2011.


On the eve of the 2011 NBA finals, Professor Walter Greason asked the readers on NewBlackMan: “Can Dirk Save the NBA?” Citing the NBA’s history, its efforts to court white fans from “middle-America,” the centrality of racial meaning to its marketing strategies/popularity, Greason concludes that Dirk Nowitzi has the potential to “save the NBA.” He writes, “If Nowitzki overcame James, especially in a series of emotionally draining, well-played games, a new version of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry of the 1980s would be born.


It was that era that created the possibility of Jordan's global appeal. If the NBA hopes to create a global sensation that will extend its reach for new generations of fans in the twenty-first century, Nowitzki must defeat James in this year's Finals. Dirk may be the last chance to save the NBA.”


At one level, the argument about the NBA’s desire to produce white superstars to cater to white fans otherwise uncomfortable with a largely black league erases the NBA’s global turn. With a league increasingly reliant and interested on fans from  Latin America, Asia, and Europe, the necessity for a Larry Bird in the twenty-first century has weakened. According to a 2007 study, 89 percent of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 54 were “aware of the NBA,” with 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 describing themselves as fans. With 1.4 billion viewers watching NBA games during the 2008 season (up through April 30th) on one of the 51 broadcast outlets in China, and 25 million Chinese visiting NBA.com/China each month, basketball and the NBA are cultural phenomena within China. 


If we take China as example, the NBA has been tremendously successful marketing the game through the likes of Bryant, James, and Iverson, whose talents, racial bodies, and whose markers of hip-hop/youthfulness/ have rendered them as authentic basketball commodities. As of 2010, Kobe Bryant possessed the top-selling jersey for 4 straight years in China. That year, LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Derrick Rose founded out the top-five. Yao Ming wasn’t even amongst the top 10. His absence can be partially attributed to injuries but for several years he has been outside the top 5. A similar circumstance is evident in Europe, where Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade were the top selling jerseys in 2010 (10 out of top 15 were African American players; 5 European players) All that being said, in a cultural sense, in terms of image, and in terms of the NBA’s relationship with corporate America, there remains an effort to both conceal its blackness all while selling its whiteness. 


As such, Greason’s article rightfully elucidates the ways in which, as noted by Todd Boyd, the NBA “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse,” where race, whether directly or indirectly, is the subject of conversation at all times (2000, p. 60). He connects to a larger history that leads us back to the Palace Brawl, to Jordan, to Magic v Bird, and even into the 1970s. Yet, the NBA’s effort to re-brand itself racially most recently started around 2003, with an increased emphasis after the Palace Brawl.


The 2003-2005 seasons was a “low point” for the NBA, when it saw a sharp decline in fan support. Television ratings were down, while complaints from corporate sponsors increased. Opinion polls consistently ranked NBA players as the least liked professional athletes in American sports. In response, the NBA hired Matthew Dowd, a Texas strategist who had previously worked with George W. Bush on his re-election campaign. Having successfully helped Bush find immense support within Middle America, Dowd was brought in “to help” Stern “figure out how to bring the good ‘ol white folks back to the stands” (Abramson 2005).


In this context, you would think there would be a significant marketing appeal or potential for Dirk is this regard. He offers a white body and ample skills that purportedly provides something different from the NBA’s African American superstars. Yet, despite success on the court, despite an MVP and appearance in the NBA finals, Dirk has not to-date emerged as the NBA’s great white hope. A championship in 2011, a final’s MVP, and even his posturing LeBron (not gonna happen) aren’t going to change this role.


It’s not like Dirk is new to the league; he hasn't captured the national imagination to date (even though he won an MVP), so it wouldn't seem like a championship will result in a dramatic increase in popularity. While Dirk has "whiteness" he doesn't offer the narrative central to white racial framing. The power of white sporting narratives focuses on a fantasy about bootstraps, hard work (think Hoosiers), and players that come out of European system don't fulfill these narrative fantasies. Moreover, in the national imagination, whiteness and American-ness functioned interchangeably so that neither Dirk nor LeBron possess the requisite identities to function as white in an American context.


While commentators often assume that the yearning for white superstars reflects a desire of white fans to “root for someone who looks them,” the incentives here are a bit more complex. The popularity of Larry Bird, for example, rests not simply with his whiteness but in the narratives, tropes, and ideologies embedded within his body; a body that pivots around national, class, and racial meaning. Bird reinforced hegemonic frames concerning whiteness and working-class masculinity. Notions of teamwork, intelligence, hard work, and determination, all of which play through ideas of white (American) masculinity, help us understand why Bird (and to a lesser degree other white Americans) captured the white basketball imagination. In other words, Bird provided a certain amount of nostalgia for a time in sports. He provided an alternative white male hero to “African American professional basketball players who are routinely depicted in the popular media as selfish, insufferable, and morally reprehensible” (Cole & Andrews 2001, p. 72). Yet, Dirk isn’t able to function as such a binary.


Dirk can’t save the NBA (for whom; from whom?) because he doesn’t offer the desired narrative; he doesn’t embody nostalgia for basketball of yesteryear, to small-town basketball played on dirt courts in America’s heartland – he, like, LeBron has no possibility of ever playing for Hickory.


In turn, he doesn’t reinforce dominant narratives of white success as a result of hard work, determination, bootstraps, and intelligence. Dirk, the child of a professional basketball playing mother and an accomplished handball player, joined DJK Würzburg, a renowned basketball club in Germany, at the age of 15. Dedicating himself to basketball, Dirk was a quasi professional until he joined the NBA ranks in 1998. Six years later, despite amassing All-star numbers on the court, the NBA’s global turn had not produced a marketable white (European or otherwise) baller to fill Larry Bird’s shoes. Nobody had filled his does. Some cited this failure as part of the NBA’s ongoing image problem.


In June 2004, Larry Bird sat down with Magic Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, and host Jim Gray to discuss the state of basketball in a symbolic passing of the torch from the NBA’s past to its future. The  “2 on 2 sit down,”, aptly taking place at the gym used as the home court for Hickory High school in Hoosiers, a film that celebrated the era of whiteness (Jim Crow) as the era of basketball greatness, sparked controversy when Larry Bird lamented the declining presence of white athletes in the NBA. Responding to Jim Gray’s question as to whether the NBA needed more white superstars Bird offered the following assessment of the racial landscape of the NBA: “Well, I think so. You know when I played you had me and Kevin (McHale) and some others throughout the league. I think it’s good for a fan base because as we all-known, the majority of the fans are white America.” He further disrupted while simultaneously legitimizing the hegemonic logics of race and sports when he argued, “And if we just had a couple white guys in there you might get them a little excited. But it’s a black man’s game and it will be forever. I mean the greatest athletes in the world are African American.”


While the media feigned a certain amount of shock, denouncing the comments as extreme, racist, and hateful, his rhetoric merely reflected the commonsense logic of a broader discourse. On one level, Bird seems to be giving voice to the longstanding presumption regarding black male athletes possessing a genetic advantage over white male athletes in that the absence of whites in the NBA is a result of natural selection.


On another level, Bird’s comments are not simply about the dialects of race, genetics and sport, but about the financial, spiritual, cultural and racial loss felt (or imagined) in the face of the declining presence of whites within the NBA. In other words, the purported and assumed declining interest in the NBA, the declining quality of play, the diminished “respectability” of players (what happened to the role models), and most importantly the cultural importance of the game are in deadly decline because the white NBA players are an assumed “endangered species.” For example, in 2004 ESPN.com “Black History Month” article entitled  “The Technicolor Sports Hero” that documents the increased visibility of black athletes within sports marketing, Darren Rovell begins his discussion by pointing out the declining importance of white athletes:


To silence the most glib sports executives, ask them who they think is the most marketable white athlete today. It usually does the trick. A chorus of “umm's,” “huh's” and “give-me-a-minute's” are used to bide for time before they finally spit out names like Lance Armstrong, Tony Hawk and Andy Roddick. Yet ask for their assessment of the most marketable black athletes and the names just flow off the tips of their tongues.


In other words, racial progress, the breakdown to the walls of segregation, isn’t merely providing opportunities for black athletes, but has lead to not only a diminished importance for white athletes on-the-court, but within the cultural imagination. Again from Rovell,


And active white athletes are becoming less recognized among sports fans. On its top 10 list of marketable athletes in America, Marketing Evaluations, which produces the Sports Q Ratings, has Brett Favre at the highest active white athlete on the list at No. 9. That's the lowest that first white athlete to appear on the list, says the company's executive vice president, Henry Schaffer. Will it come a day when no white athlete appears on the list? Or could the pendulum of marketing trends someday reverse itself, and white athletes begin to dominate in the advertising arena again?


As such, Bird’s comments and the yearning (that Professor Greason critically elucidates) for Dirk to “save the league” reflect the broader fears, panics and anxieties that define a post civil rights America. It isn’t simply a yearning for a white (American) superstar, but the presumed narratives that because of white racial frames are restricted from today’s NBA stars. Although Michael Jordan penetrated the narrative colorline through embodying “the American Dream [as] a matter of personal perseverance,” race is central to the cultural meanings of the NBA, yet that transcends skin color. Jordan as “Africanized Horatio Alger” (Patton quoted in McDonald, 2001, p. 157) reaffirmed a narrative so often reserved for white American athletes: the story of the “army of athletes who possess the (new) right stuff with modest beginnings, skill, and personal determination” (McDonald 2001, p.157). 


While Dirk will certainly be celebrated through these rhetoric (while LeBron won’t), his whiteness notwithstanding, the 2011 NBA finals will not lead to the crowning of a “German Horatio Alger.” There is no French Lick in Germany and therefore no Dirk Legend.



David J. Leonard is Associate Professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He has written on sport, video games, film, and social movements, appearing in both popular and academic mediums.  His work explores the political economy of popular culture, examining the interplay between racism, state violence, and popular representations through contextual, textual, and subtextual analysis. He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and the forthcoming After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press).


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