OAKLAND -- In a game with no real winners, the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers played to a draw Sunday, particularly during an emotionally charged pregame inquisition that did credit to them both.
Not the game itself, mind you. That was your standard Western Conference quarterfinal Game 4, which both the Clippers and Warriors fought very hard to win in a methane-rich environment made so by Donald Sterling’s alleged remarks to his now former girlfriend, exposed first by TMZ and then by Deadspin.
But on the larger scope, the 40-some-odd men at ground zero of Sterling’s grand public undoing did what they felt in their souls was best for them, as sure an acknowledgement of intellect and free will as one can imagine.
Or, as Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it Sunday:
[RATTO: Sterling's alleged comments put NBA in quandary]
“We talked, we’re playing, and that’s our message,” he said when asked how the Clippers, most directly confronted by Sterling’s antebellum attitudes, are reacting to the sting. “The one thing I’ve learned is if our message doesn’t vibe with yours, it doesn’t mean yours is right.”
“Listen, I get all of it. If someone wants to do it another way, I get that too, and I have no problem with that either, so I don’t know all the right things here.”
Who does? Such brazen racism on such a public stage is a good 50 years out of date. Not racism, mind you – that still thrives in a myriad of ways, in the shadowy corners of a society still trying to grow into its shoes.
But the enormity of this issue – a man with 19th century societal concepts not only employing people of color and regarding them as little more than workhands, and then exposed to the light of modern-day technology because he objects to a picture of his girlfriend with one of his own industry’s most admirable icons – is more than anyone below the age of 70 could realistically cope.
“It’s absolutely a distraction,” Warriors head coach Mark Jackson said Sunday before the teams took the floor, using the word “distraction” correctly for one of the few times in coaching history. “But we understand the assignment.
“I see people say, ‘Well, do you boycott?’ No. You stand up there and you answer questions as an African-American man and you sound intelligent and you carry yourself and conduct yourself to answer and let people know.”
And so they did, in not just a building created for spectacle but on a national stage addressing one of the more spectacular expressions of retrograde culture in recent memory. It was the goldfish bowl of the outside world gone mega-viral, and the score of the game was dramatically less important than how the players dealt with the strangest pregame prep any of them have ever experienced.
The players still had not just their jobs to do but a point to prove – that their goals do not shrink or become diminished by pursuing them in such an environment, but can be used in an odd way to say to their employer/tormentor, “Not even you at your very worst chases us from what we want now. What we may want later is going to be something different, and something you’ll like much less, but we set our priorities irrespective of your naked contempt for us.”
“To me, it’s ministry,” Jackson said. “I think it’s great to have a platform and have dialogue about this. And it exposes some evil. And it’s an advantage.”
That would have been equally true had the players chosen to boycott the game entirely, or put aside their competitive issues with each other and make a pregame statement of mutual solidarity. Any statement would contain its own power, save refusing to address it, and in any event Sterling’s true undoing would come not at the hands of his players but at the hands of his peers in NBA ownership, and more broadly to the nation at large.
Donald Sterling has been turned loose upon us all now, despite the fact that he has been a problematic figure on racial lines for decades. This was Day Three of a story that does not go away unless we all let it, and Day One of the workers’ response. The wheels are in motion – now comes the part where we all learn where the car takes us.