Before Eric Clapton met Jimi Hendrix, he imagined blues musicians to be black, black men driving long, pink Cadillacs with their guitars in the back. He imagined that they drove from gig to gig on dusty roads always one step ahead of the police and scorned lovers. He imagined that the Cadillacs these black, black men drove smelled like sex. Then he saw Jimi Hendrix play. And he knew all he imagined was true.
I want to meet Mark Kizla. I want to meet Childs Walker.
I want to know why Kizla equates hip-hop with J.R. Smith’s behavior rather than immaturity. I want to know why Childs Walker and/or a copy editor at the Baltimore Sun thought spearchucker was an okay word to use. because I think I might already know.
Both these men made egregious mistakes in their columns. Both men opened themselves to charges of both ignorance and racism. Does Kizla understand hip-hop as a cultural phenomenon and a way of life? No. Does Walker know what a spearchucker connotes? If somehow he didn’t, he surely does now.
I can’t answer the question of why each of these men chose their respective paths. But I can say their thoughts and feelings committed to print are endemic of greater societal problems in the Western world. I can also say their thoughts and feelings are enabled by too many of the black men who also cover and write about the games athletes play.
Additionally, the question is being put to athletes: if the media is so wrong in their assessment of you, why don’t you fight back? Ask Chad Pennington. Ask Ken Griffey, Jr. Ask Barry Bonds. Ask Terrell Owens. Ask most any professional athlete. They will all tell you the same thing: it’s not worth the trouble to fight. It’s not worth trying to fight an antagonistic press corps that, as soon as you stand up to them, will band together and make a concerted effort to ruin your career if they can.
So reporters write what they want without compunction while athletes feel hamstrung by the very members of the press hired to report their exploits. But the problems are even deeper than that.
There are athletes who only spout the lines provided for them by agents; products of diction coaches with eyes only for the endorsement prize. There are athletes who say whatever they must just to get by, whose hearts are hardened with distrust for anyone other than them, sadly teetering on the boundary of the land of hate. Their eyes never quite meet reporters’. They stand stiffly or sway nervously, waiting for the interrogation to be done.
There are athletes afraid to speak because the very words that come from their mouths will belie the fact of crooked institutions that demanded only excellence on the court or on the field but never in the classroom; just one step ahead of an Outside the Lines report or an NCAA investigation. And there are the athletes who are so world-weary that by too tender ages, they are tired of the game. Feted so young, criticized for losing too early, given savior status at the first flash of the promise of the legend not a making of their own; so soon will they be crushed under the weight of ineffective teammates, angry crowds of paying spectators who buy into the hype and feel betrayal each time the ball rims out, or the pass falls incomplete, or when the losses mount, or there’s a crack in what they feel should be impenetrable armor.
Is anyone surprised weed and alcohol can be an athletes’ best friend?
On the other side of the aisle are the reporters. There are the men and women of the beat who have the unenviable task to make the games that loyal fans watch closely each day or night live again the following morning.
They are paid little when compared with the athletes they cover. The food provided for them sometimes merits a hazard label; buffet is used out of habit, spread is what the food does in intestines. It’s a wonder a study of gastronomic tract ailments related to sports reporters has never been undertaken.
Then after each game they must deal with athletes who remain in the throes of the adrenalin rush that enabled them to once again perform their on-going and seemingly never-ending dance for sometimes less than caring spectators who expect nothing short of brilliance for the too-expensive tickets that just might tip their credit card balance beyond their monthly means–just for a night of forgetting the gorilla that sits on their back while they toil in their cubicles Monday through Friday.
Some nights, when the play ends just right, the post-performance moments can be golden. There is a glow in the clubhouse or locker room that everyone shares. Those are the nights that make everyone’s participation worth a month’s anticipation at doing it all over again. Some nights are so full of loss that the silence and hushed voices that the story writes itself just by the pain etched on the performers faces. They too are well aware of what they must be conveying without so much as a word to the horde of scribes who know the story before a word is uttered. Those nights too make it worth tomorrow’s game because they are the ultimate test of each person’s allegiance to the other; athletes, writers, and many spectators get too little sleep that night wondering how the pitch was missed, the layin was blocked, how the pass was dropped. And the next game cannot come soon enough.
More often the games are what they are. Another in a string of 16, 82, or 162. It was what it was, neither a complete victory nor a potentially debilitating loss. All participants are left wanting. The interplay between all parties is joyless. The questions are too many and the answers are never satisfactory; even in victory everyone loses.
It is always just after a string of games like these that the eruption takes place. One busted play, one wrong quote, one wrong question, and it is as if the world just creaked to a halt. Emotions become inflamed and exchanges become contentious. For the athletes interviews are too long. For the beat reporters they are not long enough. Everyone is angered by the scene.
And into this void steps one columnist who never sees the inside of a locker room or clubhouse, never smells the sweet scent of an emotional victory or feels the heavy air of a crushing loss.
But suddenly there they are. They become the all-knowing authority, the experts, peddlers of whatever their minds conjure for the moment. Their motto is write first, ask questions later. Too often from their perch comes not the wisdom of the observers’ perspective but words of the ultimate outsider, seemingly secretly ever-jealous of the beat people–except for the pay–and the athletes who dance their every game dance.
This is where Mark Kizla walks into the black mind of J.R. Smith. This is where Childs Walker or the copy editor or the night editor who exhumed the word spearchucker from its hateful, racist grave enter.
Kizla imagines scads of young black, black men of which J.R. Smith is a part. In his mind’s eye he sees a parking lot filled with Escalades. Smith and his cohorts, known and unknown are dressed in their white wife-beaters, five-sizes-too-large jeans saggin’ just so and pimp-strollin’. They are on the hunt for women in hooker shorts with extensions cascading down their bare backs. In Kizla’s mind Smith is grinding with a Hershey-skinned woman-ho’ to gansta rapper symphonies, Cristal in one hand, her waist in the other.
For Walker and crew the average National Basketball Association court is filled with barely-dressed Zulu warriors who are more comfortable clothed this way; it’s their collective unconscious speaking through the game.
Walker and crew sees them pounding the rock, running and jumping over and over, and they envision the veldt and these long, black, black men stride for stride with their striped or spotted prey.
And for both Kizla and Walker they are just one step ahead of the police and scorned lovers. And their 21-century Cadillacs with their shiny 24’s always have the smell of sex.
Just as they did in the imagination of a white man– in 1964.
D. K. Wilson writes for the dynamic sports site The Starting Five.