March Madness History: How I Learned to Approach Race As a White Boy Playing Basketball
“Down by one and ten seconds left in the Final Four, you've got to get the ball to your best player, Jim!”
“And that’s what Michigan has done, Billy. Best player’s hands. Ball at the top of the key. National Championship on the line.”
I jab-step to my left then bring the ball to my right hip. Five seconds left and I dribble right twice before bringing the ball behind my back and jump to a stop just beyond the free throw line.
“Three seconds left, and he’s gonna get a good look…”
I leap with the ball cocked to the right side of my head.
“Two to go and he releases…”
The orange orb floats through the air.
“This thing’s got a chance!”
The buzzer blares as the ball whips through the net.
“It’s good! It’s GOOD!! Michigan is your National Champion!”
I raise my arms, then twirl around and bring my hands down to cover my mouth in disbelief.
My hands are filthy. Covered in black dirt.
And that’s it.
CBS announcers Jim Nantz and Billy Packer’s voices vanish from my head as the grand vision of a full-sized stadium and frenzied fans turn to my garage door and a dirt slab. The ball splashes into a puddle of mud brown water.
That was life for an 8-year-old growing up in Michigan in the early 90s.
For an avid, young basketball fan, it was the place to be. The Detroit Pistons won the NBA Championship in 1989 and 1990. Then five freshmen arrived on the University of Michigan’s campus in the fall of 1991 and the Fab Five was born.
Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson changed my life. Five black kids from Detroit, Chicago, and Texas who wore long, baggy shorts and black sneakers had a profound affect on a skinny white kid with a fro of curly hair who couldn't have been over four and a half feet tall.
But I wished I were one of them.
Their gold uniforms had a divine glow to me. The block, blue “M” on the shorts represented the epitome of cool. Chris wore 4; Jalen, 5; Juwan, 25; Jimmy, 24; and Ray, 21. I wanted to be each of those numbers every time the shirts were handed out at the Community Ed basketball games.
I wondered if I would look cool with a shiny, bald head like Jalen’s. Or if a high-top fade like Juwan’s would work with my frizzled, wavy locks.
My hair stayed the way it was.
As a white kid growing up in a Mid Michigan town of around 5,000, of which maybe 25 kids were not white, I was a more than capable athlete. Being eight and dominating the sports world in your town does wonders for confidence, but I also knew what was outside Bath, Michigan.
I watched a lot of basketball on TV. I noticed that most of the best players were African Americans. I didn't resent the fact that I was white, but there was definitely a part of me that wanted to be black. I figured it would help my chances of getting into the NBA.
Not that I wasn't going to try anyway.
I chased three-on-three basketball tournaments all over the state of Michigan. My cousin, Joe and my best friend, Manny were the rest of my three. We came up with clever names like “Two Handles and Mop” (my hair being the mop).
The other teams were surprised when it turned out we knew how to play.
Trophies piled up for first and second place finishes. From fourth to sixth grade at sites from East Lansing to Cadillac, my cousin, my friend, and I played basketball. I still dreamed of becoming an NBA player.
Then as a sixth graders in March of 1998, Manny and I hopped on a Greyhound to Royal Oak, a ritzy suburb of Detroit where my cousin lived. We jumped in my uncle’s BMW and headed to the University of Detroit Mercy for yet another three-on-three.
Whistles blew, balls flew, rims rattled, and sneakers squeaked. Hundreds of 12 to 13-year-old kids ran around in the controlled chaos of the U of D gym. We had played against black kids before, but they had been on teams with other white kids.
This tournament was different.
Here there were a few teams with only African Americans. In clothes that were too big for their bodies and shorts that sagged beneath their butts, they terrified me. They looked faster, bigger, stronger than anyone I had ever played before.
Luckily, there wasn't much time to think about it. We had basketball to play.
We easily dispatched our first two opponents. Playing the best basketball of our lives, we won our next two as well and found ourselves in the semi-finals. We would be playing the winners of the game played after us; we made sure to watch.
We shouldn't have. Three black kids from Detroit ended up scaring the crap out of us. They were fast. They were big. And they were good.
One of them wore a headband with the Nike Swoosh upside down. Another wore a ribbed, white tank top under his cut-off t-shirt. Their best player wore the yellow Michigan shorts with the block “M” looking as cool as ever.
We wore royal blue shorts and white t-shirts. Acne covered our faces. Manny was our tallest player at maybe 5 feet 4 inches. They had a guy reaching close to 6 feet. Joe was our smartest and cockiest player. He had fear in his eyes. They joked around and made fun of where we were from.
They even had muscle definition. The only reason my muscles were visible was because I didn't have an ounce of fat on my body.
We were screwed.
The ball was tossed up. They won the tip. They threw it in to their big man. Manny swiped at him as he shot and while fouling him knocked his Nike headband down over his eyes. The ball still went in.
It was going to be a long game.
In a game up to twelve by ones and twos, they had already jumped out to a 5-0 lead. Joe passed the ball every time he touched it. Manny did the same. We stopped setting picks, stopped playing basketball. We were truly terrified out there.
Finally, I had enough. I was going to try to beat these guys.
I started driving to the lane, diving after loose balls, knocking my guy down if he was getting an easy shot.
And it started happening. I started making shots. Joe and Manny started getting into it as well. All of a sudden it was 10-8 their lead, but we had a chance.
I hunkered down on defense with my legs bent and spread shoulder length apart in the perfect defensive stance. The kid I was guarding faked a dribble left. I stopped him. He tried going right. I was there again. Then he shot.
Two points. 12-8, them. Game over.
We shook their hands. We told them, “Good luck in the finals.” We had one more game to try to get third place in the tournament.
But I went into the bathroom stall and cried. Cried like my mom had died. I tried to stop. I had lost before. I would again. I just couldn't stop crying.
I eventually gave up on the basketball dream. Around the time high school hit, I realized that my scrawny frame could be put to better use running around a track. Turned out I was pretty good at that. Turned out there were people to be afraid of on the oval as well.
Ethiopians and Kenyans dominate the distance running scene. As a youngster, I tensed up at the sight of huge sixth graders on the court. Now I tense up when my legs look like tree trunks next to the East Africans, whose stilt-like legs more resemble toothpicks. Their tightly bunched calve muscles suggest speed and endurance all at once.
I think back to that day I cried after we lost that game in Detroit. I wonder if I cried because I lost to three black kids. I know that isn't it.
In The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck wrote: “It was like training for a race and preparing and finally being down at start with your spikes set in their holes. No choice then. You go when the pistol cracks.”
I cried because I didn't give my all. I cried because I had no reason to be scared but was anyways. That’s the thing with sports, nothing else matters other than how hard you play.
A whistle blows.
I crouch waiting for the jump ball.
I inch as close as I can to the starting line.
The ball goes up.
The gun fires.
No more time to think.
I just go.