The NBA Finals are under way, with the Oklahoma City Thunder facing the Miami Heat. Network executives and the sports punditocracy are elated with the match-up. Ratings for Game 1 of the series were up more than 10 per cent over last year, as casual fans tuned in to see the teams’ marquee players, NBA scoring leader Kevin Durant and three-time MVP LeBron James, face each other. Meanwhile, opinion-makers are happy with teams and personalities that can be easily slotted into arresting narratives. It’s safe to say that the Thunder are cast as the “good guys”: a team of young and talented players, gathered through the draft, who have committed themselves to their coach and to an un-glamorous city on the Plains. Meanwhile, the Heat are a high-priced experiment always teetering on the edge of implosion, a collection of uncoachable stars led by LeBron, who alienated the entire sports world by declaring on an ESPN special in 2010 that he would take his talents to South Beach.
While perceptive fans are aware of the media-driven narratives that mold the presentation of sports, we don’t often acknowledge the racial stereotypes at the root of these storylines. Sociologist David Leonard insists that ideas of race are always present with the NBA, a league of predominantly black players watched by predominantly white fans. When fans or commentators talk about “the NBA player” in the abstract, the picture that typically comes to mind is a black man. In his book After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (State University of New York Press, 2012), David examines how white American fans and commentators, as well as NBA officials, have struggled with this image of the black player. Once upon a time, when the embodiment of the NBA player was the universally liked Michael Jordan, blackness was not a problem. But after Jordan’s departure, the model of the black player became someone more than Allen Iverson, with his tattoos, braided hair, and sideways cap, ridiculing the idea of attending practice. The perception of the NBA player as overpaid and undisciplined thug burst open with the 2004 “Brawl at the Palace.” In response to scenes of Ron Artest and other players fighting with fans at the close of a game, commentators and fans stated openly that the problem with the NBA player was that he was a product of black, hip-hop culture. David’s book looks at these responses and the efforts of the league to rectify the NBA’s damaged image, by turning players into respectable professionals who would be more acceptable to white fans in the seats, to the wealthy buyers of luxury boxes, and to the league’s corporate sponsors.