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KURT STREETER

We've finally adjusted our color

June 08, 2008|Kurt Streeter

Kudos to us (most of us, at least) . . . we've come a long, long way.

I'm talking about Barack Obama.

I'm talking about the Lakers and the Celtics and the resumption of their bitter feud.

I'm talking about how the battle for the White House and the battle for the NBA title combine to show our progress when it comes to the thorny issue of race.

All week long there has been much focus on the 1980s, when L.A. and Boston fought on a trio of occasions for the title, the final time in 1987.

Those dust-ups were famously hard fought and tense. Most of the tension sprang from the bitter on-court history shared by the league's most prominent two teams.

But a good chunk of the tension, we must admit, reflected that era's hardened racial divisions and ham-fisted stereotypes.

Remember when the Celtics were regarded as the "white" team? When, despite having a black coach and several prominent black players, in the national narrative the Celtics were a scrappy band of slow-footed white guys taking on all comers in a sport that had become overwhelmingly African American, the basketball equivalent of boxing's great white hope?

Leading the band was the great Larry Bird, as iconic for his play as for what he symbolized: a self-described "hick" who resembled a cardboard cutout of a disgruntled line-worker threatened by downsizing at an Indiana GM plant.

It was convenient that Bird played during a time when the first real waves of blue-collar downsizing were rippling across the nation's rust belt.

It was convenient too that Bird and his team played for the city of Boston, a place with a tortured history of bigotry. As Celtics great Bill Russell had put it when speaking of his playing days: Boston "was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form."

And it was perfect for this plot that the Celtics' foil would be the fastbreak, pedal-to-metal Lakers squads led by James Worthy, Byron Scott, Kareem and Magic.

"The Lakers were Showtime," remembered Bil Banks, a retired, University of California African American Studies professor, when we spoke recently. "Showtime? That was the very embodiment of the black style."

And so it came to be that, throughout those years, large sections of the nation divvied up their racial and cultural allegiances by which team they rooted for, which star, Magic or Bird, they admired most.

Remember? I do. I was in college then, and when I wore my clunky, dark-green, Larry Bird hi-tops and talked up Bird as the best player on the planet, my black friends heaped me with scorn, most of it good-natured, always carrying an underlying nugget that told a story reflective of the times: "How could you, a black dude, like that white boy?"

This was a line of attack seized on by Spike Lee. In one of his films, a white character living in a black neighborhood wears a Bird jersey and gets a grilling. In another film, when a black character says Bird is the best, Mars Blackmon shouts him down.

Daggers, from a black, pop icon, to white America.

Daggers fueled, we should remember, by the veiled hostility of the day. Here is where politics and the presidency come in.

It should not be forgotten that the Magic and Bird golden years dovetailed with the Reagan administration, which held forth from 1981 to 1989. Reagan, who openly and brazenly courted Southern whites who were still unsettled by the civil rights gains of the 1960s, was hardly a friend to black America.

With Reagan in the White House, we were deeply divided. Racial animus hung over us like a storm cloud. As Banks put it, speaking of that era and specifically of 1984, when Reagan swept to a second term and the first Lakers-Celtics Finals of that decade took place: "Barack Obama just could not have happened back then. . . . We weren't ready."

Thankfully, it's different now. Look at our politics. This very week, we saw Obama become a major party's undisputed leader and presidential nominee. In sports, that other great cultural weather vane, we have an NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Lakers where the old racial animosities simply do not exist.

The Celtics are an almost entirely black team. Few care.

The Lakers are an international squad reflective of our shrinking, flattening world. They are a "black" team no longer. Few care.

Let's not forget that there's still progress to be made. Skin color is still a big factor in our culture, politics and sports. Think of how black NBA players have been cast unfairly as thugs. No one says the same thing about hockey players, who brawl in almost every game. Think about the West Virginia and Pennsylvania primaries, and, lest we become too full of ourselves in the Golden State, remember that race mattered too in California's Democratic primary.

Still, we're in a new, better, more hopeful place.

A black man named Barack is a hairbreadth from the White House. The Lakers and the Celtics are battling for a title and the national narrative involves race only as a look back to a bygone age. These days, black kids, white kids, Latino kids and Asian kids all covet those clunky, Bird-style Celtics shoes for their retro vibe.

There are times when we need to step back, recognize how far we've come, and pat ourselves on the back. We're headed in the right direction.

One of those times is right now.

--

Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Streeter, go to latimes.com/streeter.

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