Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Shaking Our Faith in Basketball

There is news today that strikes at my core: An academic study of the National Basketball Association finds racial discrimination in the way referees call fouls.

For someone with my background, this comes as a greater shock than Christopher Hitchens’ new book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” This foul study is a blow to my secular humanist heart.

For city kids growing up among New York’s multi-ethnic masses, basketball has always been a metaphor: threading through tight spaces under pressure, seeing openings and seizing them, making moves while keeping track of where others are, using every second and every inch to score in a game where bodies and brains are always in motion.

At City College, where I studied and later worked, the game was a religion. We prayed for grace over the hardwood floor of Madison Square Garden and, in 1950, it came.

Our undersized five, sons of Jewish immigrants along with black kids whose grandparents had been slaves, did what no team in America ever did before or has done since, won both championship tournaments, the NCAA and NIT.

They were hailed as the "Cinderella team," but in less than a year the fairy tale was over. Six of them were indicted for taking bribes from gamblers as were non-ethnic players across the country.

But the sport and its true believers recovered. I played as long as I could, and then my sons inherited love of the game. I took them as toddlers to Madison Square Garden to see giants swoop and swarm inches away and yell for our beloved Knicks. At home, we named our Old English Sheep Dog Clyde in honor of Walt Frazier.

Basketball is known as the ghetto sport, a concrete field of dreams for poor black kids. But there are also the hoop dreams of the privileged, white and black, who become businessmen, lawyers, bankers and journalists, who gorge on games over satellite-fed screens and then lace up their sneakers at gyms and health clubs to recover a lost body language in savage scrimmages with strangers.

Now they are translating all this joy into sordid statistics, saying such things as “If you spray-painted one of your starters white, you’d win a few more games.”

If there is bias, let’s certainly get rid of it. We want to keep our faith pure, but in the name of Michael Jordan and all else that’s holy, don’t make it all about numbers.

Let’s go, Nets!

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