WHICH ATHLETE, watching, on any media platform, in any part of the world, could not have been struck by the ontological exhaustion that is the black athlete’s burden to bear in America?
Interviewed on CNN by Anderson Cooper, former NBA stalwart Chris Webber expressed his support for current players and hailed the actions they had taken on the 26th of August. Webber, who from his perch as TNT commentator had spoken movingly on the 26th against the backdrop of the abandoned hardwood, lauded the interruption—the disruption, if you will—that the players had enacted. By boycotting the games, Webber wanted it recognized, they gave everyone the opportunity to reflect on the players’ rationale. In the moment that was the pause, it was now incumbent on America to address why the players had decided to champion the antipolice brutality cause. Webber wanted America to do undertake the work of explicating, to itself, why the players had chosen to do what they did.
In setting the nation this difficult task, Webber wanted to break the cycle of media expectation where every “expert,” no matter how unqualified, is given license to hold forth. Dire prognostications, wholesale declamations (embodied in no figure more viscerally, or loudly, than ESPN’s cartoonish Stephen A. Smith), and saccharine invocations too often dominate in the moment of the crisis.
In his sober vulnerability (he seemed on the verge of tears), Webber’s hope was for something very different. Webber’s was a call for the kind of national self-reflection in order that that something else, something like an honest reckoning with the ongoing effects of racism, in its many iterations, might become possible. Webber’s was a plea, and yet it had all the trappings of nonexpectation. What he was calling for would not come to pass. His words could not disguise his hopelessness. His words were betrayed by the brittle timbre of his voice. Like many others, he had seen this movie before.
In a word, Webber spoke like a black man overwhelmed by the daily reality of being black in America. Almost a year later, in his op-ed for the New York Times, the African American columnist Charles M. Blow gives voice to Webber’s barely suppressed hopelessness. “Society,” Blow writes, “has become desensitized to the killing of Black men.”1 Bereft of alternatives, Blow declares: “Rage is the only language I have left.”2
What Webber, less than twenty-four hours after the boycott, called for, had already been embodied by his TNT colleague Kenny “the Jet” Smith. Overwhelmed at the news of the boycott, cognizant of what it meant, Smith, who won two championships with the Houston Rockets, could barely speak:
“Right now my head is ready to explode like in the thought of what’s going on,” Smith told his co-hosts Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley. “I don’t know if I’m appropriate enough to say it what the players are feeling and how they’re feeling. I haven’t talked to any player.”
“Even driving here and getting into the studio . . . hearing calls and people talking. . . . And for me, I think the biggest thing now . . . as a black man as a former player, I think it’s best for me to support the players and just not to be here tonight . . . And I figure out what happens after that.”3
With that, “the Jet” disconnected his mike, and walked off the set of TNT’s Pregame Show. As a fan of the “Pregame Show,” I appreciate the host Ernie Johnson’s equanimity and his trademark bowties. I am agnostic about Shaquille O’Neal. In truth, I tolerate him. However, I love “Sir Charles,” the “Round Mound of Rebound.” Charles Barkley is irreverent, at once opinionated and self-deprecatory, given to a grandiosity that is destined to blow up in his face.
Things are more vexed for me with “the Jet.” I appreciate his keen insights, and his race to the “board” at halftime always raises a smile. My difficulties with Kenny Smith stem from his playing days. Kenny, you see, broke my heart in 1994 when he was the point guard on that Rockets team that beat my New York Knickerbockers. My Knicks took it all the way to game 7, but, courtesy of Knicks shooting guard John Starks’s voracious ineptitude, we fell short. Taking 3 after 3, one clanging off the rim more thunderously than the other, Starks just kept launching 3s. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I can still see Starks lining up to shoot yet one more three. Starks was nothing at all like Kenny. “The Jet” was all discipline and calm. All poise at the point, dictating play while the Knicks flailed. As you’ve already discerned, Kenny Smith is the stuff of my Knicks nightmares.
And I cannot tell you how many of those nightmares I have, Ezra. One day I will tell you the story of Charles Smith’s offensive futility. Against the Chicago Bulls, yes, the Jordan Bulls. And Horace Grant’s defense. And the heartbreak. And the Sisyphean quality of Patrick “the Juggernaut” Ewing’s vain struggle to carry the Knicks to a championship. To say nothing of Ewing’s struggles at the free throw line. As I told you, son, this is the reason it took me so long to watch ESPN’s documentary on the Bulls, The Last Dance. I could not watch it with you, much as you implored me to. To this day, there is still so much pain there.