NBARS #131: I Said I Was Raised Like One
Some days ago, a friend of mine got steamed when I referred to Melo and Arenas as "secretly Latino." Her contention? That anyone of sharp mind could've figured as much from their respective fancy names.
I pointed out that Cubans I know had no idea about Arenas until I told them, and that if anything, you'd expect this ethnic background to figure into their public profile. There are tons of Latin Americans in this country and in the world, the game is popular among them, and Najera has made more from Spanish language endorsements than he has on the court. That commercial where Melo visits PR is a prime example of this; at very least, it's probably convenient to have this as an alternative (or foil) to his upbeat Baltimore grit. Looking back at the FD archives, I was able to turn up this post, wherein I hear an Arenas radio ad that pronounces his name correctly. Which—I just checked—the bobblehead on my desk most certainly does not.
So while it's not entirely a secret that these two men have blood grown upon foreign shores, it's somewhat concealed and selective touted. For men of fame and wealth, there's no such thing as a neutral fact. No one whose very likeness is forged in the fires of public discourse has an ethnicity that's just kind of there; maybe neither one of them spends a ton of time identifying with this category, but it's a feature of their being that, for whatever reason, is immune to the gravity of celebrity. Fine, Arenas doesn't know what our shirt means. Is that a reason to completely forget that maybe, just maybe, there's a cross-cultural element to Arenas that accounts for some of his individuality? That's a harder case to make for Melo, and yet he's the one who has publicly laid claim to these roots. With star athletes, who get constituted through marketing strategies and reporter angles, it's rare for stones to gently sit there—unless someone wants it that way.
These concerns came rushing back to me when, upon Shaq's marital demise (THANKS KOBE!!!!!), papers everywhere ran a list of his spawn: Me'Arah, Shaqir, Amirah and Shareef. No shit "Shaquille" is Arabic; I'd always thought this was some sort of Afrocentric seventies thing. So what about this next generation? Times done changed; you don't wear dashikis to work, and you don't give four kids non-cooptitated Arabic names without a reason for it. So I took my horses to town, rode around the square, and unburied the following: apparently, Shaq is strongly rumored to be in the Nation of Islam, and had Farrakhan at his wedding. Page Six even mentioned it. Then, the formidable Tom Ziller turned up this L.A. Times abstract from 2002:
Turkoglu, from Turkey, and [Shaquille O'Neal] share the Muslim faith, which they learned about each other during the past All-Star game in Philadelphia.
And wouldn't you know it: this monumental exchange is also referenced in Shaq's Wikipedia entry:
The newspaper quoted him as saying, "It's a Muslim thing," with regard to the greetings he exchanged with opposing player Hedo Turkgolu before each game of that year's Western Conference Finals series. The newspaper also quoted Turkoglu as saying that he was not surprised at the gesture from O'Neal "because Muslim people support each other."
I'm not entirely sure what the moral of the story is, and I certainly see why O'Neal wouldn't be outspoken about a faith that everyone hates. Then again, I'm kind of amazed that, despite these widely available clues, you don't hear about this more. The NBA's second or third most recognizable player is very likely a Muslim, and yet it doesn't matter one way or the other. It's within the province of deduction if anyone cares, so I've got to conclude that really, the sport's audience would just rather pretend it weren't the case. If the spicy backgrounds of Anthony and Arenas are similarly kept at bay, it's also a function of fan preference. That agency is what allows for these omissions; Nike only shows us light because we have chosen to live in shade.