I’m 6-foot-2 and can’t dunk
The Jackson 5 helped define my blackness after I didn’t connect with sports
When it comes to assumptions about race and sports, the often false conventional wisdom is echoed in the title of the 1992 sports comedy White Men Can’t Jump.
But what if you’re a black guy who can’t jump — or catch a pass with one hand, or perform other feats of athletic derring-do? What if you’re a brother who never thinks to spend perfectly good Sunday afternoons and Monday nights watching NFL games or strategizing how to win your fantasy football league? Are you any less a black man for being lukewarm about the sports our community seems obsessed with?
To explore my own struggles with these questions, let’s backtrack to 2003 where I’m playing a pickup game in Los Angeles at an outdoor basketball court. I’m fast-breaking to the basket when a teammate lobs the ball 10 feet high and shouts “DO IT!” Apparently, this guy — this white guy — fantasizes that I’ll catch his pass midair and execute a Jordan-esque alley-oop dunk.
I jump high as I can, which isn’t high enough to catch the pass, and the ball bounces out of bounds, along with my self-esteem. I’m so angry at myself that I begin to crave the motherly consolations of a cheeseburger, the ultimate sin for a vegan like me.
Looking back, I wonder why I was so hard on myself — most guys can’t manage a play as skill-intensive as the alley-oop. But I also wondered why my white teammate assumed I possessed the athleticism to pull it off in the first place. At 6-foot-2, I’m fairly tall, though hardly by NBA standards. No, I’m fairly sure there’s another reason my teammate made that assumption:
As a brother, I often negotiate two common but rarely discussed stereotypes. The first is some white people’s assumption that due to my rangy build, I must be an undiscovered Russell Westbrook. The other is the expectation by nearly everybody — but especially other black folks — that I’m a rabid sports fan. The second assumption feels far more isolating and weird than some white guy’s presumption that I can hoop, despite the fact that there are plenty of black men like me.
First assumption first. Frankly, I don’t really blame any white guy for arriving at the presumption that I must be a hoops Jedi. That’s because if black America has an official sport, it’s arguably basketball, a game that’s as powerfully linked to our community as hockey is to whites, and soccer to Latinos and Europeans.
People of every color are spellbound by the fast break, the three-pointer, and the slam dunk. But black Americans seem especially bedazzled by basketball. A 2013 Nielsen survey found that blacks make up 45 percent of the NBA television viewing audience, more than any other ethnicity. Nielsen’s 2014 sports media study reported an astonishing 63 percent increase in African-American NBA viewership over the last decade. Hoops is such an integral part of the black American experience that many black men and youths seem to view the game’s swagger as an extension of our masculinity, to the point that lots of us walk, dress and carry ourselves like we stepped out of a Nike ad.
Considering that 74 percent of professional hoops players are black, I’m not surprised that a white stranger would assume that every brother who shows up to play pickup basketball must have serious game. What’s more disconcerting to me is the other assumption people tend to make about me — that as a black man I must have the TV locked on ESPN, soaking up more and more sports news and information. I’m talking about the presumption that all black guys live and breathe sports.
I don’t. But I’m no hater, either. I enjoy watching an occasional game, and every so often I check the NBA standings. I’m just not zealous about sports.
Turns out I’m not alone. According to FiveThirtyEight, 1 in every 14 adult men in the United States don’t watch nationally televised sports, while 7 percent of men who own a TV didn’t watch any national sports on broadcast or cable in 2014.
This is the story of how I became a 7 percenter.
I grew up with the home-court advantage. Literally.
My dad had dreams of whipping his three sons into NBA pros, so he built a court in the backyard of my Gary, Indiana, home. Light-years superior to the porta-backboards you see nowadays, the Britt family court had poured concrete flooring, a backboard bolted to its foundation and outdoor lighting that ensured the hoop action continued past sundown. This wasn’t just a court, it was a laboratory where my dad would mint basketball superstars by imparting secrets he learned playing for Florida A&M in the 1940s.
Had I taken advantage of that court, today I might be a celebrated former pro doing analysis for ESPN. But I squandered my advantage, because the one thing my father couldn’t do was instill in me a passion for basketball, or any sport for that matter. Like many black dads, Thomas Britt assumed that a shared interest in basketball was a given, a sort of cultural heirloom passed down from father to son. I let the old man down.
Oh, I tried. As a boy on the path to self-discovery, I “experimented” with sports. I followed the teams from nearby Chicago — the Bulls, the Cubs, the Bears. Unfortunately, Chi-Town wasn’t a city of champions from the late ’60s into the ’70s, so most years I agonized as my favorite teams failed to win titles, much less capture their divisions. I took those defeats personally, as if the Bulls’ annual failures might possibly jinx my own life. I learned that being a sports fan is often a depressing repeat-cycle of great expectations followed by dashed hopes — “Oh, well, maybe next season.”
But recurring disappointment was just part of my discomfiture with sports. As Freud famously theorized, “anatomy is destiny,” and my thin frame and ordinary abilities made sports seems like an ill-advised pursuit. Nerdy by nature, I couldn’t identify with the jocks at school or on TV, nor to the cruel, unyielding “boys don’t cry” mentality that prevailed in most sports. I was seeking thrills befitting my more emotive personality.
And then, it happened.
It’s 1969, and I’m watching the Jackson 5 make their national television debut. The sibling act from my Indiana hometown is fronted by a boy my age, 11-year-old Michael Jackson. He’s dancing like James Brown, singing like a gospel shouter, and transforming my usually reserved 15-year-old sister and her hot friends into love-struck fanatics. There’s an athleticism to the group’s lockstep choreography that’s contrasted by a decidedly un-jock-like musical sensitivity. I’ve never seen men — let alone boys — wield this kind of power over women. It’s akin to watching a 10-year-old lead an NBA team to a title.
I’d found my calling. Duly inspired by my new heroes, I began going to school dressed like a unisex pop star. Scarves, chokers, floral print shirts. I learned to play guitar, a skill I could pursue without worrying about concussions and similar career-ending injuries many athletes deal with.
Exploring a more fluid black masculinity came with a heavy price. I survived several beatdowns from jocks and bullies who mistook my flamboyance for sissiness. Those black-on-black thrashings changed me. I came to resent sports, athletes and, yes, even members of my own race. In revolt, I embraced white rock ’n’ roll culture. I doubt that I’ve fully recovered from the psychic trauma of those schoolyard assaults, but meeting and befriending numerous other black “square pegs” over the years has helped immensely. There are more of us than anyone could possibly imagine.
So, back to the big question: Does being lukewarm toward sports make a brother less black?
Philosophically speaking, no. But I’ll admit that being apathetic to sports has sometimes made me feel less black. Considering how important sports is to many African-American males, it’s safe to assume that my disinterest has closed off countless opportunities to bond with other black men. I sometimes feel out of place at fireside gatherings, where brothers and sisters huddle before the TV to cheer their favorite football or basketball team, and share traditionally black cultural experiences. I regret that.
But I wouldn’t change a thing. My nonchalance towards sports set me on a bittersweet path to self-discovery that I’m grateful for. And while I never became the music star I dreamed about, I now live the catch-as-catch-can life of a writer, a job that allows me to tap my creativity while sparing my body the wear and tear of athletics.
With perspective, I’m impressed by how definitions of black masculinity have broadened. Not only is there more encouragement for African-American boys to explore their potential beyond sports, young sisters are conversely encouraged to participate in athletics. Trends such as the Afro-Punk and Blerd movements advocate for alternative black lifestyles. And some say the current leader of the free world is a black nerd. That’s societal change for the better.
I like to think that I’ve changed, too. I appreciate sports a lot more, especially for the lessons they impart. Life is a long, hard game. We lose as routinely as we win. And though we may be incapable of performing acts as challenging as an alley-oop dunk, we should try anyway.