Race and Basketball

Continuing with the theme of atavistic racist behavior: this goes back a few years, but Rex Chapman, one-time "Boy King of Kentucky," has recently been giving interviews about some less savory aspects of his basketball career with the Wildcats in the 1980s. The main reason he left for the NBA draft after only two years was because the athletic department was pressuring this "Great White Hope" to stop dating African-American women. And it wasn't just the administration. From the Louisville Courier-Journal:

"I went down to my car one morning and somebody had keyed 'nigger lover' into the door," Chapman said. "It's the climate of how things were. People were bothered by the fact that sometimes I dated black girls. Most preferred that I keep it confidential and hide it."


On one hand, Chapman said he was the object of adulation from fans and students. Lexington was referred to as Rexington. A group of students staged a campaign to elect Chapman as president of the Student Government Association. Women wore T-shirts that read, "I love Rex."

At the same time, vandals scarred his car, Chapman was the subject of obscene jokes and somebody who didn't appreciate his interracial dating called his mother in the middle of the night, he said.

Nice. Chapman says he has seen the effects of racism throughout his life, in his hometown of Owensboro, Ky., for example, where most of his friends were African-American, or at his first NBA stop in Charlotte, N.C.

He's reliving his University of Kentucky experiences now because he's being asked about the recent allegations that Steve Nash, a scrappy (and white) point guard, won the NBA's Most Valuable Player due to racism. Chapman, who happens to be the director of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns (Nash's team), approaches the issue with refreshing candor:
"I don't have an ax to grind," Chapman said. "I love the University of Kentucky. I bleed blue. Hey, Steve Nash is my best friend. I look at him like a little brother, and he deserved the MVP award.

"But it's asinine not to think that some people voted for Steve because he's white and some people voted for Shaq because he's black. I don't think it was enough to influence the outcome, but at the same time, there's this elephant in the room and nothing is ever going to change unless we talk about it."
I won't get into the back-and-forth about whether Steve Nash really deserved the MVP. But, like Dave Zirin, I find it easy to root for the long-haired, war-opposing, Communist-Manifesto-reading Nash over his main competition, Miami's Shaquille O'Neal, who dreams of being a sheriff after his playing days are over, was named an honorary deputy for both the Bedford County (Va.) and Orange County (Fla.) sheriff's departments, has been known to ride along on actual patrols and drug raids (most recently with the Port of Los Angeles Police), and even busts perps himself.

In fact, the East Baton Rouge police had to investigate charges of police brutality when the 7-foot-1, 325-pound center performed a little Shaq Fu on some hapless suspect, holding his head in a toilet, punching him in the stomach, and choking him. According to the New Yorker's Rebecca Mead, he also practiced "police grips" on his former Laker teammates, and "regularly order[ed] members of the team's support staff to stand against the wall with their legs spread."

Hmmm...maybe it's not so mystifying that they traded him.