Look Down That Lonesome Road

(Please read my latest Arenas explication. From Saturday.)

With all the introspection going on last week, I got to thinking about the role of politics and race in FreeDarko discourse. I don't really bring these issues up anymore, and I'm not afraid to say why: discussing them realistically leads to dreary repetition and frustration, more fantastic plans are an insult to social justice. Sports can have political undertones and associations, but rarely lead the way. Certainly, they're more likely to do passive harm or impede individual opinion than provide anyone's vehicle. The NBA may mean something, but that doesn't mean it stands for shit. That has as much to do with the players themselves as the top-down authority of the system.

Thus, it came as a mild shock to read that Tracy McGrady's decided to step up where LeBron once wilted. He first caught wind of the atrocities through "insiders" Mutombo and Deng; then, at the behest of no one whatsoever, T-Mac recently journeyed to refugee camps in Chad to educate himself on the Darfur issue. He also brought a film crew, and plans to help spread the word to the public. Go read the entire article at the Houston Chronicle and then come back here.

On the one hand, this makes me second-guess everything outlined above. Here's a marquee name in the league, taking it upon himself to go hang out in tragic squalor. Ira Newble raising his voice is one thing; actually, it's nothing. Tracy McGrady, though, is a huge name—respected, liked and admired around the league. And perhaps more significantly, he's an authority on such grim matters. T-Mac's got such a personal relationship with death and loss that I can't quite imagine any other star making this trip in the same way. I mean, theoretically any player could, but McGrady's experienced enough death that he's functional around it and, paradoxically, able to really let Darfur register. I think that most humans would go into some kind of shock if faced with that kind of situation, no matter how rough a neighborhood they came from.

Just in: T-Mac's out of media day because his grandfather passed. It's really mind-boggling how much death hovers around the Rockets' number two. For both its friends and foes, the NBA is intertwined with hip-hop; those for and against hip-hop are tapped into its tricky relationship with life cut short. But Tracy McGrady is in an entirely different category, where loss and mourning shed all dissonance, outrage and, well, swagger. I'd say at this point, T-Mac is as attuned to—and conversant with—the value of life and shiver of death as anyone in professional sports.

To really comprehend that scale of slaughter and displacement—and actually open up emotionally to its victims—it would probably take someone like McGrady. To show up in a refugee camp and calmly listen, be available as more than a celebrity observer, requires the kind of perspective T-Mac's got. I also feel like Tracy McGrady has no choice at this point but to throw himself into causes like Katrina or Darfur. He's got to make something constructive out of his misfortune. Or, if you want to be darker about it, he's doomed to follow around death as it has thus far stalked him. Does this set a precedent for LeBron and Carmelo? Superficially, yes. At the same time, it also underscores how unique it is when McGrady takes political action—and how little anyone should want to be able to follow him.


At 9/30/2007 8:11 PM, Blogger T. said...

What's going to be really interesting is that Mac also has access to probably the most influential person in China . . . just 10 feet away everyday for the next 200 days or so.

While I don't think this will lead Yao into leading "China out of Sudan" divestment protests anytime, what will happen when McGrady asks Yao to show up at a fundraiser.

Yao has already made a lot of headway here in China with his support of migrant workers education, AIDS education and the special olympics - in terms of public opinion. What could he do with Sudan?

Mainlanders aren't really used to taking up a contrary opinion with the CCP when it doesn't affect their personal lives. I wonder if this could be the first.

(In any case, I think Mutumbo has a much stronger legacy as a humanitarian instead of a shot blocking defensive center.)

At 9/30/2007 8:22 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

great stuff, t.

i wanted to clarify one thing: i'm not trying to downplay deke and deng's involvement here. or their personal connection to humanitarian crises. i think i meant that, of the league's really, really influential players, only mcgrady seems like a natural fit to confront something like darfur.

oh, and i realize it's a little bit of a stretch to suggest that having all your people die would prepare mcgrady to face genocide. i'm also going on the assumption that there'd be some more general reflection about death that would go with his experiences.

At 9/30/2007 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


could you inform the uninformed? where and when has death followed mcgrady? what type of shit are you referring to?


your anon admirer

At 9/30/2007 9:17 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

i can't find a comprehensive list anywhere. but there's this 2004 article about the seven people close to him he'd lost up to then. this one from 2006 has the total at eight, and that's before it came out that his "undisclosed personal issues" that month had to do with like two more deaths.

like i said, not the same as genocide, but the man has definitely had to do a lot of thinking about death.

At 9/30/2007 9:21 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

and like i said, his grandfather just died.

At 9/30/2007 10:57 PM, Anonymous db said...

Great post, and if we are to talk about an FD approach to the questions of racial politics, it surely comes through strongest in exactly this kind of focus on the subjective enablers/constraints in the baller (or fan) who tries to engage these questions. I agree that T-Mac has a great capacity for acceptance of affect, and in this sense he seems like an anti-Jordan, who suppresses the political in the name of his bad politics ("Republicans by sneakers too"). You get the feeling that while T-Mac may not always be outspoken, there's a different kind of abstention which is not always based on a desire for control, but a level of self-awareness.

My gut feeling is that LeBron actually has the emotional IQ to engage some political questions deeply but he's also aware of his youthful self-consciousness and lack of confidence, and the level of scrutiny that will be attached to his any move. It will be interesting to see if this emerges over time as the industry tries to keep him mainstream-friendly.

While I enjoy this development as a fan of T-Mac, I can't say I feel very happy about the likely effect on peace in Sudan. As a bunch of non-US commentators have observed, the problems here are about a supposed "nation" whose borders were imposed by Europeans with little regard for the actual cultural and political makeup of Africa. There have been complex civil wars and violence in this area for decades, and in the current international context a US-Led push for intervention will only be viewed locally in the context of its long-term involvement in the region, a track record of injustice and bad politics. Not to mention the role of evangelical US groups in funding Sudanese rebels. One thing gringos find hard to understand is that sometimes it may not be their role to sort everything out, and on this level the "activism" of the T-Macs and Newbles of the NBA has the effect of simplifying a complex political problematic into a simple case of human suffering, one that even ballplayers and their fans should have an opinion about. As Mencken put it, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

At 9/30/2007 11:18 PM, Blogger T. said...

db - I agree, its an insanely complex issue. However, one thing I think that Mac, and Deng and Mutumbo really can make a difference in is refugee rights/relief/assistance.

Still difficult to navigate the maze of non-profits and corrupt governments, but donating to refugee relief is a Junior Jumble compared to the Times of London cryptic crossword that is trying to understand the Sudan genocide & civil war and all the parties involved in Darfur.

At 9/30/2007 11:46 PM, Anonymous db said...

Absolutely with you on that T., and not trying to say nothing can be done, obviously at that basic human level being open to supporting those suffering is important, and I think T-Mac is well-intentioned here. My concern is that unless the complexity of the situation is foregrounded by activists their advocacy work will be used in support of misguided and politically partisan "action" by governments, and the consequences will never be reported properly in the english-language media....

At 10/01/2007 12:02 AM, Anonymous paper tiger said...

nice post shoals. db's comments about the complexity of darfur and the consequences of misguided action have me wondering about the limitations of the political activism that nba players can engage in. i agree with T, someone like mcgrady could do much for relief funds, etc. but i guess it's worth considering that even a superstar only has so much political capital and can only rally the masses so many times. i wonder how much thought they give (or whether they should give any) to how they want to spend it. i'm obviously not saying someone like mcgrady shouldn't care about darfur if that's what he's drawn to caring about, but if you understand that you can only concretely do so much, might it make sense to aim at issues where the needs and solutions are more clear?
on the other hand, for efforts to ever move people they have to be genuine, and people are most genuine in the areas they're touched by. in that sense, i'm with shoals. not to be crass about it, but i guess the same connection that makes villanueva a good awareness raiser for alopecia makes t mac good on death.

At 10/01/2007 1:08 AM, Anonymous db said...

paper tiger's comments brought to mind another activist cause getting a lot of attention in the black community - The Jena 6


Some fairly well established people from the hip-hop community like Mos Def and Kweli are showing support, but this is obviously a much more problematic issue for an NBA superstar to express an opinion on - yet possibly one where such a voice might make a big difference (Sorry Etan, you are cool but not a superstar). The risk, however, would be high for anyone wanting to maintain mainstream US endorsements, it would be "political" while Darfur is "humanitarian" ( in other words the political in Sudan is read as something to be circumvented in the name of the human, as if that was possible). The NBA would probably also get involved in a Jena statment, as such a stance would fuck with their marketing big-time.

So a related question - who up the NBA star chain would be most likely to lend some support to the Jena cause? AI? Marbury (who might say anything at this point)?

At 10/01/2007 7:54 AM, Anonymous Jimbo said...

Is simply raising awareness not the value of this type of action?

I don't think anyone would suggest that Tracy McGrady, a basketball player since, what, 19, would be out there brokering peace or some shit like that. But maybe going out there, being in the Houston Chronicle, making a documentary, talking to Yao, whatever, will help get enough people interested to generate enough pressure on the people who can make a difference.

... Or maybe not. We can but hope. Of course the other 'simple' fact is this - if T-Mac raises $100,000 to help the refugees, it's not going to meaningfully change the situation or turn things around, but it sure has a chance to make a huge difference to a few hundred people.

At 10/01/2007 11:03 AM, Blogger Martin said...

DB I guess the Jena 6 cause would have to be taken up by either a retired player or owner. An individual with that is past needing endorsements and positive marketing, yet has the clout to get the message across. Similar to the Genarlow Wilson case- which is far and away the greatest miscarriage of justice that I know of that is still going on now; that Mark Cuban has taken up. http://www.blogmaverick.com/2007/01/27/genarlow-wilson/

At 10/01/2007 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

david stern's desire to globalize the game always seemd ambitious, not just because of the finanical stakes, but the political ambiguity of the nba would have to eventually be clarified.

being that mcgrady (and any other nba player who desires to make a social impact) screams into stern's climate controlled bubble, how much impact will they be allowed to have on places like darfur?

At 10/01/2007 5:38 PM, Blogger stopmikelupica said...

The NBA (David Stern) has a huge investment in China. That's where they see the future of this league, with 1.5 billion potential fans. Therefore the Darfur situation will not be too sanctioned by the NBA (preferring instead to send players with NBA Cares to Kenya).

On a side note, this was a pretty brilliant line, Shoals:
I think that most humans would go into some kind of shock if faced with that kind of situation, no matter how rough a neighborhood they came from.

I really liked that line.

At 10/01/2007 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is why I read this blog every day. Great stuff, Shoals. And even better stuff in the comments.

At 10/01/2007 9:13 PM, Anonymous db said...

Speawking of Marbury, Shoals, I hope you're going to pick up marbury's comment this morning (via hoopshype)

"What was the highlight of my summer?" he said. "When I gave myself to Jesus Christ". Marbury even noted the sudden transformation occurred June 29. And what inspired the change of heart? "What happened to me was I got to see myself outside of myself," he said. "I was able to look in the mirror and really see myself."

I think everyone would concur that only FD can give this development the coverage it deserves in relation to his other off-season comments.

At 10/02/2007 11:42 AM, Anonymous Art Tatum Can't Shoot said...

Pssh, why talk about Marbury and Cloud Wizards when BEN WALLACE GETS HIS HEADBAND BACK?!?!

At 10/02/2007 1:20 PM, Anonymous Jaz said...

Americans in general don't have the tragic sense of life. All is optimism and progress and happiness and buying junk. (Reality may yet intervene.)

It seems Shoals is also drawn to people who have that sense. Like McGrady.

At 10/03/2007 12:58 PM, Blogger Mr. Six said...

Certainly, resolving the whole of Sudan's religio-ethnic issues is tremendously complex.

Halting or at least slowing the genocide seems relatively straightforward to me. As even the Houston Chronicle article mentions, there's already an authorized UN force ready to deploy. There are a number of reasons it hasn't done so yet. But it's not as though the militias doing the killing and displacing in Sudan are particularly well armed, supplied, trained, or organized--they're just better off than the civilians they're slaughtering. Much as was the case in Rwanda in 1994, a modestly sized international force is very likely to disrupt the Sudanese militias' operations. So, without solving all of Sudan's problems, it would be possible to prevent 400,000 deaths from becoming a million, and the million refugees from becoming two.

A few thoughts on the McGrady side of the story ... If he spent all of his political capital on preventing the genocide from becoming even worse--and his role was significant and successful--I think he could go to his grave believing that he'd done the right thing.

I'm also particularly curious about t's idea in the first comment that T-Mac + Yao + [combination of NBA as organization and individuals] + 2008 Olympics might = enough pressure on China to break the current stalemate.

The sort of sad thought I have about this story is whether it indicates one of the reasons that Tracy might never hoist the LOB. He's too human. So many of the league's champs seem so fanatically focused on basketball to the exclusion of everything else of consequence. T-Mac, however, seems consumed with his humanity. Obviously, the right teammates, coach, organization, luck, and health could offset his potential inability to drive his team to a championship through his own singular devotion. But what's more curious to me is that his success as a person could also be a contributing factor to his relative professional failure. I suppose that might only make him just like everyone else.


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