Nur ein Gott kann uns jetzt retten.
—MARTIN HEIDEGGER, Der Spiegel
Thank God for my brothers in the NBA.
—CORNEL WEST to Anderson Cooper, August 27, 2020
TODAY, MY SON, EVERYTHING CHANGES. Today, August 27th, 2020, everything changes. It changes because a black man walked into an NBA locker room. He had his mind made up. He had decided that he would not do something. He would not do the very thing he was expected to do, something he was paid to do. The thing that everyone in the locker room was about to do. He would not play basketball.
I cannot recall how many times I have said to myself that everything is going to change. Too often in the past I have been disappointed by my own prognostications, swept along, wrongly, on a tide called “optimism.” (And not, I admit, optimism of the Gramscian variety—“pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” The result, maybe, of too much Antonio Gramsci and not enough of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.) I have subscribed to the belief, misbegotten or not, that tomorrow will, inevitably, through the inexorable force that is history, be better; tomorrow will be markedly different for black life in America than it was yesterday. Nonetheless, today I find myself—once more, as I have for most of my life—marveling, I use the word reluctantly, but I marvel at the power of sport. Once more I stand moved, touched, amazed at the power of athletes to commit themselves to changing our world.
So, while I do my best to eschew optimism, it is my duty to record, as a lifelong student and fan of sport, how professional black athletes, in the spirit of James Baldwin’s imploring black Americans to take responsibility for their white counterparts, are making their voices heard. How professional black athletes are trying to save black lives from brutal white American violence. I do not know what the effects of the athletes’ actions will be. I expect that it will be, as these things are, complicated. Uneven. A sprig of hope here, a dollop or three of disappointment there. I am trying to understand, maybe even to anticipate, how this all turns out. If it sounds, then, as though I am vacillating, then it is not because I am hedging my bets, as a good Gramscian might do—you know, “optimism of the will,” that kind of thing—but because I am doing my best to sift through the possibilities. In preparation, and one can never be fully prepared, for what might eventuate, preparation foreshadowed by possibility and uncertainty, finding myself equally in the throes of profound foreboding and the sense that now, as is surely clear to you, is the moment to go all in on utopia.
I write to you Ezra in no small measure because your mother and I are watching your love for basketball grow. We watched your first game, in the fall of 2019, without expectation, just happy to see you take up a team sport. But you, you had other plans. You blossomed. You went from playing for your proudly uncompetitive school team—so entrenched in the feel-good culture of crunchy-granola Ithaca—to being recruited to the Wolf Pack, the best team in our immediate area; after which you were asked to join another (travel) team, the Binghamton Bulldogs. In Ithaca, the Wolf Pack is the most elite team, and your coach, R., who combines keen instruction with his deep, smiling, love for the game, is outstanding. The difference, my son, between a good coach and an exceptional one is, it turns out, rather simple. A good coach helps you become the best player you imagine yourself capable of becoming. An exceptional coach presents you with a vision of yourself beyond your own imagining. R. is undoubtedly an exceptional coach. He saw from the very time he watched you play (way back in 2019), and continues to see, potential in you that he draws out, that he nurtures into being.
Your mother and I delight in how you have taken to the game. It is quite something to see how you are making it central to your sense of who you are. It is out your love for the game and our love for you that I am writing you.
Nip (my nickname for Ezra), you look up to the likes of Anthony Davis and LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, you idolize Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers. On the Wolf Pack you wear number 25, in honor of the black Australian American Simmons. You make fun of James Harden’s defense—a deficiency fed, with good reason, by YouTube videos in which Harden plays defense like a matador. Walt Clyde Frazier, the greatest Knick of all and the Knicks color commentator, calls this “matador D.”1 (But, I promise, James Harden has a defensive surprise for you.) Nonetheless, you look covetously at Harden’s three-point shooting ability. You mock, with good reason, my beloved, the perennially hapless New York Knicks, even though you’ve taken a shine to Julius Randle. (I wish you’d seen Patrick Ewing in his pomp, my son. Oh, how I wish. Much as I wish I’d seen Walt Clyde in his prime.) In taking their stand against racism, taking especial aim at police brutality against black men and women, these NBA and WNBA players showed themselves to be the most progressive force in American politics. Progressive in the sense that they have pinpointed exactly what it is that ails American society and in demanding that these issues be redressed. Progressive in the sense that they understand police brutality as Martin Luther King Jr. does in his denunciation of the bombing of black churches in Mississippi: “This is white power in its most brutal, cold-blooded and vicious form.”2 Amen. Or, goddamn, as the case might be.
These NBA and WNBA players are bringing attention to racism, violence against women, educational inequity, voter suppression,3 the lack of economic prospect for minority communities, and police brutality. These athletes are taking it upon themselves to do whatever it is they can to ensure social justice for the black community. In doing so, these black athletes are undertaking to create life—black life, yes, but also life in this country in its entirety—that can withstand, and possibly overcome, the hatred that spews from a significant constituency of white America; a constituency that can only be named white supremacist. A hatred aimed squarely at black America. These black athletes have embarked upon an onerous undertaking, my son, but, as Baldwin knows, this is the kind of work that black America is so often asked to do. There is always salvific work to be done. By black America. As it is today, as was yesterday, and as it will surely be tomorrow.
Baldwin knows this. In “My Dungeon Shook,” his letter to his nephew and namesake, James, Baldwin implores his nephew to do this work,4 all the while seeking to fortify young James with the strength of their forbears in this epic undertaking:
We can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.5
To “make America what it must become,” the work begins where it always does:6 with trying to stop white America killing black Americans. You see, my son, when it mattered, when one more black person had been shot by a white police officer (“white power in its most brutal, cold-blooded and vicious form”), players in the NBA and the WNBA took their place in the vanguard of a political struggle. What is more, they did so with a political thoroughness that cannot be gainsaid. Nor did it not hurt that these athletes also have a certain flair for the dramatic. Both when it comes to their on-court theatrics and in their response to racism in America.