A Backstory of Black Men and Basketball

The beautiful, kinetic brilliance demonstrated by the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers was a dream for those of us who fiend for the creative on-court athletic prowess of what is known as basketball. To have the opportunity to witness the unselfish team style of play crafted by the Golden State Warriors and the lunch bucket, working class grit amplified by the Cleveland Cavaliers was a sight to behold.

I must, in full disclosure, admit that I was raised in northeast Ohio and I am a child of the forgotten city by the lake, Cleveland. I say this not because I am writing with an exaggerated sportscaster's righteous indignation, but my hometown heartbreak, love for the game, and interest in leadership gave my eyes a new lens to witness this Promethean event. Two teams locked in battle; two American cities -- Oakland and Cleveland -- rocked by economic neglect, and both pinning their hopes and dreams upon the backs of Black men to relieve them, however brief, of the psychic despair citizens of once-thriving cities must endure.

The backstory to this event is wrapped in the counter images and backroom moves out of sight from pedestrian fans. Stephen Curry, the 2009 seventh round draft pick from Davidson, became the centerpiece for a team built around a simple leadership lesson, sacrifice and serve. The Golden State Warriors are not a team of superstars, but a team of men committed to sacrifice. The organization embodied an ethic of "strength in numbers" and "the bench can do it" attitude.

What pulled at my spirit was not the numbers or analytics on the court, but the backstory off the court. Stephen Curry sitting at a press conference with sports writers looking to create a story, a little girl named Riley took center stage forcing typically jaded male sports writers to rewrite and re-think their stories. Stephen Curry, the MVP and NBA all-star, was daring the national media to create a new narrative of Black manhood. Yes, I am gifted. Yes, I am a star. Yes, I am brilliant on the court, but my heart and humanity are on display. I am a father, a husband, a son, and a man of faith who recognizes basketball is a gift; but my daughter Riley is the true blessing. There was nothing staged about these moments. We were able to witness this young gifted Black man change the athletic narrative and myth of Black responsibility. Yes, I am a ball player for a season, but I am a father forever. This picture was magnified by his mother and father every night, cheering their boy on. I cannot imagine the joy they must have felt watching the once little baby Stephen command the respect of a city, and now a nation. It was a beautiful thing to see.

The backstory does not stop here. As I mentioned, Golden State crafted a team of sacrifice and service, but the missing element was how they got to this point. I must give major props to Coach Steve Kerr, a brilliant tactician of the hardwood. However, there is another who should be recognized for creating the foundation for Golden State's win. His name is Mark Jackson.

As I watched the former coach of Golden State on the sidelines commentate on the team he helped build, and was ultimately fired from a year ago, I witnessed another narrative spring forth: class. The dominant narrative imagined and mythologized in sports, is that Black star power must be connected to non-Black intellectual power in order to reshape the raw, untapped talent of Black athletic skill. Sports stories tend to find the "White Shadow" or "Great White Hope" to create a palatable or crossover appeal when presenting a story. These stories are just that -- constructed stories designed to play well with casual fans worldwide. I suggest this need is changing because millennials are not inclined to need an Atticus Finch to champion the cause of the oppressed, or a Nick Nolte to manage the behavior of a crafty, but unfocused Eddie Murphy as in the film, 48 Hours.

Mark Jackson's class and intelligence put Golden State in a position to be NBA champions. He laid the foundation of sacrifice and serve and Coach Steve Kerr built on the system and created a powerhouse. To witness Mark Jackson, the man who set the ball in motion, commentate with depth, excellence, grace and class, gave a new depiction of Black men.

Those of us who are of African descent are not unfamiliar with these images, but many who only encounter people of color from the very few corporate media sources are deprived of this diversity. I challenge writers to highlight the beauty of the Curry, Thompson, Jackson and Iguodala families, and not just their athletic gifts, for it is the character of these men that created champions.

I cannot close out this article without acknowledging the magnificent defeat and powerful gutsy play of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Those who are lovers of the hardwood know we witnessed one of the greatest athletic performances in history by an athlete in the person of LeBron James. LeBron James did it all -- defense, offense, points, assists, rebounds, blocks and controlled the tempo of the game; and, at times, even coached. What was so significant about this performance is LeBron's greatness is not just in his athletic skill set, but his greatness is siphoned from the intangible area of charisma, plus talent, plus leadership and will. He has a style of play and spirit where he seeks to make people around him better. Who would have thought an undrafted Australian by the name of Matthew Dellavedova would become a hero. Who would have thought, after Kyrie Irving, arguably one of the best point guards in the NBA, and forward, Kevin Love, were sidelined as a result of injury, that a seven-foot Russian named Mozgov and a bench role player, Tristan Thompson, would become the key to winning and staying in the series. LeBron James demonstrated the lesson of we must rise together.

Average to above average professional players on paper realized they had the grit and grace to pull off an upset. This was not created by the owner, Dan Gilbert, the front office, or even Coach David Blatt, but by a man who grew up in a household where his father decided to step out of his life at a young age, and a coach who made the decision to step in and be a part of his extended family. This moment was created by a young man who was vilified (mostly on the West side of Cleveland) and talked about by Dan Gilbert when he decided to leave Cleveland to go to the Miami Heat like he was a runaway slave. This is a young man who does not have a college degree, but became a student of the game, and a master of all positions on the floor.

We witnessed the birth of LeBron James, the greatest basketball player on the planet, who does not have a game like Michael Jordan, but has more in common with Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Larry Bird, and Oscar Robertson. He is not just a player with a gift, but a leader who desires to create better players. His leadership does not end at the edge of the hardwood. He has extended his leadership to being a man committed to broader concerns of the community. His leadership led the Miami Heat, as an organization, to show solidarity with the family of Trayvon Martin and be a quiet voice of solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. He serves in a position of leadership with the NBA Players Union and will be pushing to create better contracts, not just for superstars, but also for the undrafted Matthew Dellavedova's of the world.

I am fascinated with his crew of young men who support his vision. King James bucked conventional wisdom and tapped his classmate and friend, Rich Paul, to be his agent. This move was panned by writers who thought this young Black kid from Ohio could not manage the business of the NBA's hottest commodity. This move expanded the exclusive boy's club of agents and created a new player on the scene. Rich Paul is now viewed as one of the best, toughest, and most trustworthy businessman in the game. An entire new crop of interns, working for Rich Paul, who look like the clients they represent, will enter the business world in the future because they had the opportunity to work during the summer for an agency owned and operated by a person of color. This is no small feat.

When entrepreneurs of color succeed, they are more likely to hire interns and subcontract with people who not only look like them, but come from zip codes shut out by the traditional bid process.

As I sit back and share lessons one can learn from sports with my son and daughter, I will share the backstory of Stephen Curry being a great player and a committed father. I will share the backstory of Mark Jackson creating the foundation for the Golden State Warriors. I will also tell them of the magnificent, gritty, Cleveland Cavaliers who lost magnificently. I will tell them I know my team lost, but LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Mark Jackson, and Rich Paul are creating a world where hopefully, one day, we can all win.

OM3