Monday, April 25, 2016

Supplemental Post #2: The Splash Brothers, Basketball Playstyle, and Authentic Black Masculinity

While at the barbershop getting a haircut, I got into a conversation with my barber about the Golden State Warriors, a team I believe plays fantastic basketball. When I told him that I was a fan, he responded, "All y'all light-skinned niggas like Stephen Curry." This comment caused me to think about hierarchies within blackness, expressive basketball playstyles, and just what exactly was an authentic black experience? Since slavery there has existed a hierarchy within blackness related to one's proximity to whiteness. In those times it was sometimes possible for a mixed-race black person (most likely the illegitimate child of a slaveowner) to "pass" as white. As can be imagined, this afforded light-skinned black folks a nominal level of privilege over their darker brethren. While the more dire stakes of not being forced back into a life of slavery are for the most part gone today, that level of privilege still exists as many light-skinned black folk have found success based on their proximity to whiteness, usually conforming more closely to eurocentric beauty standards and having "whiter" sounding names. But what does this have to do with basketball? As Todd Boyd writes in his book Am I Black Enough For You? Popular Culture from the 'Hood and Beyond, "basketball has much to say about contemporary African American culture, especially as a way of understanding race, class, and masculinity" (106). Boyd describes basketball performance as a contemporary site of struggle, as a form of expression akin to jazz improvisation, and as a way into understanding a "distinctly Black aesthetic" (113). Boyd posits that "African American participation in the game has produced a conflict between 'textbook' basketball and 'playground' basketball" (115). Textbook play, according to Boyd, is associated with more conservative teams like the Boston Celtics and is defined by a "heavy reliance on a series of repeated plays" (115). Playground play, on the other hand, refers to the breed of basketball that was born on the public courts in largely black dominated urban spaces. The playstyle is dirtier and relies more heavily on personal expression, like jazz improvisation. Boyd characterizes the Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers, the seasons helmed by Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and their fast paced style of play, as exemplary of the triumph of playground style. Showtime was not only a success on the court, it helped popularize basketball (and black basketball) for the entire country. The playground style, with its roots in the improvisational tradition of jazz and other forms of black expressivity, champions a distinctly black aesthetic of basketball closely related to the individualist creedo of new school hip-hop. This style of play would go into overdrive in the 2000 season after Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant brought home the title in the first of three consecutive championship wins. Bryant and O'Neal were at this point megastars beyond anything basketball had seen before. O'Neal had already starred in two feature films in the 90s and Bryant had solidified his fame in the 1997 Slam Dunk Contest. These players were stars for a new generation of basketball fans raised on the violently individualist gansta rap from artists like NWA and Nas and their playstyle reflected it. Kobe has frequently been characterized as a "ball-hog" by detractors while other players around the league have attempted to reach similar levels of stardom. This individualist style of play dominated basketball for the better part of the first decade of the 21st century. Then, in 2009, the Golden State Warriors drafted Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Known now as the Splash Brothers, Curry and Thompson have built a career out of playing with their team. Eschewing the prestige and personal fame associated with powerful dunkers, the Splash Brothers have instead focused on the three-point shot, with both winning the Three-Point Contest and leading their team to win the 2015 NBA finals. Their team-based playstyle is in direct opposition to the star-power of a team like the Lakers and could be considered a step away from the "authentic" blackness expressed by power players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James. The fact that both players have light skin doesn't help. So are the Warriors returning to a "whiter" basketball? I couldn't give you an answer to that question but I can say that they seem to be winning a lot lately.

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