Blackness & Basketball
Updated: Oct 11
By Donté Kydd-Richmond
Basketball is a staple of black culture and black life at large, and has been for decades. Since the sport’s integration, it has also been largely dominated and pioneered by black men and women.
Another thing that has represented black life and culture for centuries, albeit tragically, is pain at the hands of white supremacy.
They’re at two vastly different ends of the spectrum, but oppression and basketball have nonetheless been heavily intertwined. Even the biggest names in the sport (an overwhelming percentage of whom are black) are not exempt from the routine physical and mental violence of racism.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the most popular and celebrated players in the game today. As Peter S. Goodman says in his 2019 New York Times article, he is also the Pride of a Greece That Shunned Him. Known globally by his nickname the “Greek Freak”, Antetokoumpo’s current status as the face of his birth country conveniently does not account for the struggles he and other African immigrants in Greece continue to deal with: poverty, racially motivated verbal and physical attacks, and threats of deportation, to name a few.
Ironically, Greeks of African descent still deal with racism from the same white Greeks that admire Antetokounmpo. As Jackie Abhulimen, the Greek-born daughter of African immigrants, mentions in Goodman’s article, “the same person cheering Giannis could swear at me on the road. There’s still a very big sense of invisibility, of not being recognized as existing.” Antetokoumpo’s struggle to achieve Greek citizenship, along with an incident mentioned in Goodman's article where Antetokoumpo’s own brother Thanasis was called a racial slur by a Greek sports commentator, are indicative of a larger issue in how the white population and the Greek government treat its black population. They also show that even someone of Antetokoumpo’s stature is not free from the shackles of racism.
On June 13th, 2019, the Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship. President of basketball operations Masai Ujiri was running to join his team in celebration when he was involved in an altercation with a law enforcement officer. Body cam footage, obtained by CNN months after the incident, shows that while reaching for his access credentials, Ujiri was violently shoved away by the officer. In turn, Ujiri shoved back, and the two were separated. Ujiri was later sued by the officer for the incident, despite the body cam footage clearly showing that Ujiri was not the aggressor.
Ujiri is a Nigerian immigrant, and his unfair treatment fits next to countless other instances of racially charged brutality at the hands of law enforcement.
Masai Ujiri serves at a highly prestigious position, but at that moment the law enforcement officer did not see an established and accomplished man; he saw a black man. In a statement regarding the incident, Ujiri made a bleak, but truthful statement that despite his achievements, “there are some people, including those who are supposed to protect us, who will always and only see me as something that is unworthy of respectful engagement.” He also said his status and wealth are the sole reasons he is receiving justice: “So many of my brothers and sisters haven’t had, don’t have, and won’t have the same access to resources that assured my justice,” Ujiri said.
To watch such successful and celebrated men find themselves victimized, despite their positions, can wreak havoc in any black person’s mind - especially the minds of black basketball players all over the world, including Montreal and Canada at large.
Basketball is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and nationalities. Basketball, and the black people who continue to dominate the sport, play a central role in the culture of our city and country. But how can we express our appreciation and gratitude for black people’s achievements in the sport while some of its most important figures continue to be dehumanized, belittled and oppressed? If the highly successful and influential men at the top of the basketball world can be targeted, how can we protect our very own players?
These questions are only the tip of the iceberg in a vital conversation that needs to be had on the system we live in, and how we can dismantle this system for the betterment of us all. So the next time you are watching, playing, or in some way expressing your love and appreciation for the game of basketball, pay equal respects to the blackness that sustains it.