Foot on the Lever
Excuse the rant-y quality of what follows, if that sort of thing bothers you.
Avery Lemacorn already gave us some comprehensive analysis of the Hornets/NOLA dynamic. But with All-Star Weekend here at last, I feel moved to weigh in with some words about the locale. It's no secret that Katrina was a racialized tragedy, and the NBA—the league most often tarred with negative racial associations—threw its weight behind the rebuilding effort like no other major sport. Certainly, a lot of the weekend's festivities will nod toward the disaster, with players going out of their way to fit some goodwill appearances into their schedules.
I wonder, though, if the weekend writ large will feel any different. Wilbon famously referred to ASW as "the Black Thanksgiving," which if nothing else invests it with some kind of socio-cultural weight. Now, in New Orleans, you've got athletes who jumped at the chance to donate their time and money two years ago, including plenty who participated in Kenny Smith's ad hoc charity game in Houston (the Black All-Star Game?). What's perplexing me is that this just doesn't feel like a moment. Why isn't it all coming together in some sort of powerful statement about the power of sport, the degree to which the NBA reads black, and the cultural significance of its best-known figures?
Maybe it's just too late. At a time when the league might very well move a team to Oklahoma City, maybe having All-Star Weekend in NOLA isn't such a big deal. The downtown is largely intact or, on the surface, redone. The surrounding areas of total devastation are pretty well-hidden, and are looking more and more like permanent features of the city's landscape. There's enough of an infrastructure to keep things under control—hell, there's probably still Blackwater creeping around in the alleys for when shit gets really ugly.
It's a nice gesture that the game's there, albeit possibly condescending to the city and to whatever the NBA could mean. And let's not forget that, in the wake of Katrina, the city's demographic slant just ain't what it used to be. It's always decent to honor the ghosts of the dead, but those of the evicted and displaced? With a corporate salute? Again, that just doesn't add up to me.
And that's just it. This isn't an aggressive gesture on the part of the players, or the league, to take the side or show unwavering support for the city's victims. It's the blackest sport there is, brought into a city that's knee-deep in whitewash and dreams of gentrification. Had the All-Star Game come there sooner, it could've been a beacon of hope. Had it been seen as intervening to call folks home, to say that "this is our city," then I'd see some political relevance in it. Instead, it almost feels like a smokescreen.
While the charity that immediately followed Katrina felt like a movement, whatever players do now—and I'm not trying to downplay their sincerity, I'm just saying—is decidedly lacking in that tremulous overtone. If anything, it kind of makes it seem like settling is the best they can hope for. Bring in the All-Star Game, get some help for some families who made their way back. That means New Orleans is still black, right?
Addendum: You've probably all read ESPN's multi-articled treatment of the NBA's image problem by now. I personally don't see anything wrong with my claiming that the league can mean something to African-Americans, including disenfranchised ones, while agreeing with the mag that the Association isn't comprised only of ghetto success stories. Obviously there are distinctions of region and class within any ethnic group; it's the responsibility of those outside of it to acknowledge these, and not think with too broad a brush. However, that doesn't preclude the NBA and its players being a positive force for African-Americans writ large. In fact, it's when stereotypes break down that a group can have some sort of solidarity that doesn't run the risk of hurting it.