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Jazz of Modern Basketball: Racism and Virtuosity at the Roots of the Champion Golden State Warriors

Opening night, Oct. 17, 2017, which the Warriors lost to Houston by 1, but they were champions again by June 2018. Curry has just released a 3-pointer.

We are living the glory days of the Golden State Warriors, going to the NBA Finals for the last four years and winning three of them, setting the single season record of 73-9, changing the nature of the game with their long-range marksmanship, unselfish sharing and dynamic flow, and a sustained defensive excellence. This burst of virtuosity on the basketball court has deep roots even it sometimes feels like it emerged suddenly as if from “nowhere.” There is a fascinating decades-long history in which predominantly African American players invented the physicality and creativity that we enjoy so much among stars like Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. Just as vital to the Warriors success is the extraordinary and infectious defensive talents of Draymond Green, skills based on breakthroughs developed by black roommates at the University of San Francisco in the mid-1950s. The “Strength in Numbers” marketing slogan derives from the Warriors’ actual practice of regularly getting all their players into the game, but has come to exemplify a collective, all-hands-on-deck approach that hints at the horizontalist egalitarian politics of Bay Area political movements, too.

It’s worth remembering that their graceful and scintillating game is itself not such a departure from a longer history of NBA basketball. An early Warriors coach Bill Sharman played for the Boston Celtics in 1959-60, a year when the old-school, defensive-minded Celtics scored an average of 124.5 points per game (without any 3-point line to pad the score). The Warriors led the league in 2016-17 at 115.9 points per game. This is partly because of greater athleticism and more complicated defensive schemes that are used now, but the speedy, pass-oriented offense of the Warriors is itself a throwback to the best years of the early NBA. A couple of decades of superstar-focused, grinding isolation offense finally gave way to the uptempo passing game of this era, and to be sure it all feels new again.

The current Warriors are still a shocking departure from decades of mediocrity and failure for us long-suffering fans. But their stellar qualities—relentless defense, improvisationally brilliant team and individual offense, charismatic and politically outspoken stars—all have long pedigrees rooted in Bay Area, basketball, and sports history. Regular readers may wonder why I am writing about sports at all, given the common antipathy to the fully commodified entertainment industry that harbors pro sports along with music, movies, and everything else in our culture. Long-time sportswriter Robert Lipsyte wrote a seminal book in the mid-1970s called Sportsworld: An American Dreamland in which towards the end he captured my sentiment perfectly: “The joy of sport is as real and accessible as the joy of sex; and both have been distorted and commercialized to make us consume and conform.” This reading and presentation of a particular line through history is meant to undergird my ongoing joy and fascination, but also to reinforce the reality that there is much more to this than simply “buying in” to the hype. Similar to how we can give some of Hollywood’s worst output meanings that weren’t necessarily intended or planned for, we can reappropriate and redefine the meaning of our engagement with sports, athletes, and the political world they increasingly intersect.

Draymond Green, the defensive soul of the Warriors… very disappointed when he let himself be used for an Israeli Defense Force photo-op in summer 2018.

Steph Curry, the two-time MVP and perhaps the best long-range shooter in the history of the game.

A necessary prologue to our story is to acknowledge the earliest black basketball pioneers. Harlem’s Alpha Physical Culture Club sponsored the first Black Five, who played in New York City from 1904-1923 against other “black fives” from other athletic clubs in that era. Interestingly, the commitment to early basketball developed among West Indian immigrants in New York who brought the rigidly conservative philosophy of Caribbean sporting culture they’d learned in childhood. Building on the skills developed during these formative years, the New York Harlem Renaissance Big Five, aka the New York Rens, became the best known team of black basketball players, while other teams proliferated by the late 1930s too: Chicago Crusaders, Ciralsky Meat Packers, Philadelphia Tribunes, Cleveland Pennzoils, Chicago Studebakers, Harlem Globetrotters, Washington Bears, and others. After the Rens won the first World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939 in New York, and the Globetrotters won the subsequent championship in 1940, it belied any claims to superior skills by white players a decade before the formal integration of professional basketball began.

The NBA’s first black players hit the court in 1950, during the second season of the newly formed league, just four years after Jackie Robinson joined baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers to break segregation in Major League Baseball. Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton all played blue-collar roles—rebounding and defending—that first year. During the 1950s, a steady trickle of black players entered the league, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Bill Russell with the Boston Celtics in 1956-57 and Elgin Baylor with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1958 that the boundaries of the game itself noticeably began to shift. We’ll pick up this part of the story in a bit, but first let’s fill in the story that shaped the Bay Area’s love of basketball, gave it an outsized role in the desegregation of the sport, and an even larger role in the long-term revolt of black athletes against the exploitative conditions they were forced to labor under before unionization and free agency.

The NBA’s first African-American all-star was Oakland’s own Don Barksdale, who only played four seasons before injuries ended his career after the 1954-55 season. Barksdale, a Berkeley native, while a boy during the 1930s attended meetings of his father’s union—the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—and was strongly influenced by its leaders, A. Philip Randolph and C.L. Dellums. A lanky forward, his best years were during and after WWII when he played for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)’s Oakland Bittners. He was also a star on the 1948 Olympic team, where during an intrasquad exhibition match on the University of Kentucky campus in Lexington, he broke the Jim Crow color line during a time-out. (The practice match was held to raise money for the Olympic team, but famously racist Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp tried to ban Barksdale from playing. When Barksdale’s coach and teammates threatened to cancel the game, and lose all that important revenue, Rupp grudgingly relented.)

As told by Ron Thomas in his groundbreaking book They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers, the Olympic intrasquad game was finally held before 14,000 fans on an outdoor field. During the game, eventually won by Barksdale’s side after a great performance by him, a timeout hushed the fans. A water bucket was brought to the players and a bottle was passed around each huddle. In Lexington, Kentucky in 1948 there was strict segregation including water fountains. When the bottle came to Barksdale he almost turned away but went ahead and had his drink. He passed the bottle on to a gangly white guy from Arkansas who took the bottle and had his drink, rather than tossing the bottle away and reinforcing the Jim Crow rules. The entire audience had been raucous, then dead silent while this took place, and then resumed chattering afterwards, as small actions such as this were still achingly important in those apartheid-like times. A pre-game death threat led to Barksdale fearing for his life during and after the game.

Berkeley’s Don Barksdale, the first African American all-star in the NBA.

A year later, back in the Bay Area, a different kind of transgression took place as a commercial venture staged by Frank “Bow Tie” Walsh, a man who “could sell a refrigerator at the North Pole,” according to his wife. Walsh discovered San Francisco’s then-new Cow Palace as a great place to host basketball in 1947, and by 1949 saw a great opportunity. Walsh was friends with Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters (a man who thought he had a proprietary right to all black basketball talent—early NBA owners were afraid to buck him since they depended on doubleheaders with the popular Globetrotters to fill the arenas in a time of low attendance), and thus was very aware of the talent in black college basketball. Knowing that the pre-eminent national tournament then (the NIT) refused to allow black college teams, Walsh invited the best black college team in the nation, West Virginia State College, to play against several of the best teams on the West Coast.

The St. Mary’s Gaels defeated the West Virginia State College Yellow Jackets at the Cow Palace during that first-ever match between a white and black team on the West Coast. It was headline news in the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports pages. Local sports coverage in that era gave as much or more attention to college as professional sports. The professional teams that became the NBA in 1949 were all clustered in the east from Washington to Boston, and from Detroit to St. Louis in the midwest, but the sport was barely a blip in national consciousness. The USF Dons won the NIT in 1949 before a point-shaving scandal tarnished the tournament in 1950. As the NCAA rose to prominence, Bay Area fans were primed for another local team to make a national splash. When the USF Dons became a national power in the 1954-55 season, the entire Bay Area, no more than a quarter of its current size, rallied behind the team, having already watched the new phenom, center Bill Russell, dominate his opponents during his freshman and sophomore years.

Bill Russell was born in Louisiana and moved to the Bay Area as a 9-year-old, landing in Oakland. After a relatively undistinguished high school career at West Oakland’s McClymonds High School his growing height and jumping ability attracted USF coach Phil Woolpert’s attention and he was offered a scholarship. (Incredibly, while Russell played basketball at McClymonds, future baseball stars Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, and Curt Flood all played outfield there. Two of them would be vital contributors to advancing desegregation and the rights of all athletes in the years ahead: Frank Robinson eventually became the first black manager in baseball in 1975 after a Hall of Fame career, and Curt Flood’s refusal of a trade in 1969 led to a US Supreme Court challenge to the “reserve clause” that kept players under the control of teams for life irrespective of contracts; though Flood lost his case, his challenge is recognized as a vital blow to the system that soon unraveled and led to free agency in baseball and other pro sports.)

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Left Turn Only for San Francisco

How do we break free of the daily trauma and stupidity of contemporary politics? How do we go beyond the arduous defensive struggles that keep so many preoccupied with police violence, racist abuses, toxic masculinity, and the grinding poverty that is slowly consuming more and more of our neighbors?

Fairness has all but vanished. And the rent is too damn high! At the end of the day we are all working to pay the banks.

Dignity escapes us. We feel forced to look away, step over, and avoid the human beings who we should be helping, defending, and nurturing. The tidal wave of poverty and dispossession oppresses ALL of us. The fear of falling stalks our lives.

Self-governance is a myth. Our government has been seized by billionaires and corporate functionaries, nationally and locally.

Debt ensnares us. Credit has replaced wage increases, binding us with its coercive power. Student debt has now surpassed $1 trillion and WILL NEVER BE PAID. Without credit, doors close to our well-being now and in the future.

The planet is being destroyed. The climate crisis inexorably presses in on us. Heatwaves, catastrophic fires, floods, and hurricanes are all more frequent and more extreme. Glaciers are melting, species are being wiped out in record numbers. The government response? An all-out war on what’s left of natural systems, repealing environmental laws and aggressively pushing oil and coal use.

We are permanently at war. The attack on nature goes hand in hand with the attack on humans. The U.S. wastes over $1 trillion a year on military and secret services, funding bases in over 170 countries, carrying out air and ground attacks in an unknown number of undeclared wars in Asia and Africa. 17 years in Afghanistan and 15 in Iraq? Resources are being squandered on barbaric mayhem, mass murder, and endless war. It is an insult to our humanity and our intelligence—stoking irrational fears of immigrants, refugees, other countries, and other peoples bolsters the madness. Stop glorifying soldiers and the military. Abolish the national anthem (a pro-slavery song)! Abolish ICE! Demilitarize local police, abolish SWAT teams. Repeal the Police Officers Bill of Rights in California. Close military bases around the world; shrink the standing military to less than 20,000.

Reject your daily dose of trauma. The reality TV host masquerading as a politician understands little about this world, but he is quite expert at the manipulative power of constant attack. When someone attacks, abuses, insults, and threatens, we all throw up our arms, literally or figuratively, and seek to defend ourselves. But maybe the daily provocations designed to make us jump on command should be ignored? Resist the daily outrage over the hateful buffoon. Remember that things have been going off the rails for a long time.

Rethink ineffective tactics. There is an endless treadmill of rushing from demonstration to protest to campaign, while imploring others to join in. But those tactics don’t work. It’s incredibly difficult to develop a deeper strategic approach.

Our time is compressed. We are forced to sell too much of it to pay our bills, but as soon as we are free, we have so much to do. Most people have another purpose to their lives—musicians or artists, political activists, mentors, parents, or gardeners. Passionate hours “working” at what we care about make us feel fully alive. In our work lives we only survive thanks to the countless small acts of solidarity and mutual aid that create extended breaks, late arrivals and early departures, that claw back a bit of the time we otherwise are forced to sell.

Together we produce an incredible common wealth. We make the world around us in all its complexity and abundance, much of which goes unmeasured by the modern economy. We all contribute to the wealth that only a few are actually taking due to archaic relations of property and profit. In our online lives of clicking, liking, sharing, and posting, we are contributing (we hope) not only to Facebook or Twitter or Google’s profits (as they mine and sell our attention and engagement), but importantly we build networks of affinity, circles of friendship and trust, and webs of possibility. When we befriend our neighbors, co-workers, and people we meet in our everyday lives, unmeasured affinities grow and deepen, producing our real common wealth.

[There is] an emerging post-capitalist alternative which simultaneously transforms civil society, the market and the state forms. Civil society becomes productive, since citizens and inhabitants are commoners contributing to shared resources. The market forms become non- or post-capitalist, transformed to be compatible with the logic of the commons. The accumulation of capital is transformed into the accumulation of the commons. Public authorities become enablers of the personal and social autonomy necessary to be able to contribute to the commons.
—“Re-imagining the left through an ecology of the commons: towards a post-capitalist commons transition
by Michel Bauwens & Jose Ramos in Global Discourse July 12, 2018

The best defense is a good offense. Outside of elections, beyond the imaginations of politicians and worshippers of market and military rationality, another agenda is slowly percolating at the base of society. Building networks of cooperation to protest, to produce, to invent, and to nurture, all undergird a radical agenda that exceeds the possibilities of our so-called representative democracy. How can we push the people who claim to represent us to build the infrastructure that would allow a new life to really emerge?

Lower the cost of everyday life for everyone. Basic utilities that are part of everyday modern life should be provided at low or no cost by the city. As more things are provided for less money, the pressure on San Franciscans to work will diminish. San Franciscans will be free to invent, create, and enrich their own lives as well as the rest of us. Together we can do much more than any of us can do alone. People who have been forced into deep poverty and life on the streets are often creative, talented, kind people, with untapped skills and resourcefulness. Rather than being criminalized and scapegoated, why not invite them to create humane and flourishing solutions to our unequal society? Another population works at what are increasingly referred to as “bullshit jobs,” shuffling papers, feigning corporate efficiency, managing the endless details of other people’s property and money, while taking home little for themselves. What if all that wasted time and energy were unleashed to address the vital reorganization of urban life on a healthy ecological foundation? Our long-term goal should be a culture that requires much less work and produces a much richer life. But to get there will take a serious effort.

For starters, why in an era of global warming and increasing droughts have we not yet embarked on a crash program to reorganize our use of precious fresh drinking water?

Stop shitting in drinking water! Replumb the city. Every single apartment, house, office and school in the city should be replumbed to put gray water into daily use. We must stop using precious fresh drinking water for waste removal. California is at the edge of a drought zone—it’s only a matter of time before a years-long drought grips our region. We should be reorganizing our infrastructure NOW to radically reduce our use of fresh clean drinking water and to increase our use of water once used, i.e. gray water. This will take years, and many hours of skilled labor. Simultaneously build smaller decentralized sewage treatment facilities cascading up watersheds to relieve pressure on centralized, flood-prone facilities built decades ago at sea level.

Daylight creeks—restore wetlands. Oceans are rising fast, existing shorelines will soon be inundated. Think permaculturally about building and unbuilding the city. Remove structures from natural wetlands and culverted creeks, sites bound to collapse in a major earthquake (as they have in previous ones). Prepare for coastal flooding and subway inundation. At least waterproof underground stations and tunnels!

Restore aquaculture to the Bay! Once upon a time the bay teemed with huge salmon and sturgeon, while whales, porpoises, seals, and other water-dwelling mammals thrived too. Huge shellmounds attest to the rich and diverse food sources that fed the humans who lived here for thousands of years. Clams, oysters, mussels, fish should all be cultivated and harvested in bay waters. Other aquaponic technologies should be developed alongside a restored bay to expand local food production.

Declare a Housing Emergency! The market is broken. Stop building luxury condominiums and start building low-cost housing! If private investors won’t do it, use parcel taxes to finance a massive investment fund to buy land and build new elegant, long-lasting apartment buildings to provide homes to every San Francisco who wants or needs one at rents far below today’s “market rate,” which is simply an insult to all of us. Organize a city investigation into the occupancy and use of all apartments and homes. Those that are owned as investments and are standing empty should be heavily taxed: if empty for one year, 25% of the purchase price is owed the city; if empty for 2 years, another 50% of the purchase price is owed the city. If still empty after these taxes have been assessed, the city must use eminent domain to seize the unused property.

Establish and use a public bank to deposit the billions San Francisco currently puts into commercial banks. Add to that the burgeoning public taxes on cannabis sales. Use the interest on public deposits to underwrite public financing of a city-wide land trust to remove properties from the market in perpetuity and stabilize the cost of housing. Finance tenants to buy their buildings as limited equity co-ops and incentivize landlords to sell to the City Land Trust well below market prices with tax breaks, lifetime rent-free tenancies, and other benefits.

Free Medical Care! San Francisco is overrun with state-of-the-art hospitals and medical facilities. We are home to one of the premier biomedical research institutes in the country, and the medical industry is one of the top employers in the City. Share the abundance with all San Franciscans.

Establish Free Public Tool Libraries and Tinkerers’ Workshops. Create an infrastructure for invention and play and astonishing results will ensue. Use the enormous piles of refuse as raw material for repurposing and reprocessing into new inventions, new technologies, new toys. Bring kids together with engineers, transform education with creative, practical projects that mentor the technologically inventive thinkers of the future.

Free the Internet! City-owned fiber optic cable is already in the ground. Provide free broadband connections to all, supplemented by the SFLAN point-to-point network, and free public wifi in all parks and plazas.

Seize the electrical system and send PG&E packing! They’ve illegally ripped off San Francisco for 100 years—take their assets in San Francisco without compensation, and begin providing much lower cost electricity to all, finally complying with the 1913 Raker Act. Continue to solarize across the city’s roofs, while adding wind and tidal power as deemed necessary.

FIX TRANSPORTATION!

Make MUNI Free! Municipalize the private shuttle buses clogging our streets, reorganize them into one system serving all Silicon Valley destinations and open them to anyone to use. Turn private luxury shuttles into public buses! All bus and streetcar lines should be free to all passengers.

Impose congestion pricing on most of San Francisco, use revenue from car drivers to fund free MUNI. Nothing is worsening the quality of life in San Francisco as dramatically as the ever-increasing glut of private cars—the recent arrival of 30,000+ additional cars per day on the streets of the city via Uber and Lyft represents a public policy breakdown of the first order. Congestion pricing will drive large numbers of those suburban drivers back where they came from.

Dump Ford and Jump and all the private bike services and replace them with a fleet of city-owned bicycles, free to use by anyone with a library card. A network of public bike repair facilities around the city will keep the fleet in good operating order while also allowing mechanical skills to be widely shared.

One Lane for Food! With congestion pricing and the “natural” fall of car traffic, we can narrow the streets, widen sidewalks, and dig up a lane on every wide street and turn it into long linear neighborhood farms. Plant orchards and food gardens all over the city and seek 50% of fresh fruit and vegetables from city-based farms by 2025. Open community kitchens and have harvest festivals in every neighborhood.

Open wildlife corridors that crisscross the city. Parks, greenways, and ped-and-bike paths that don’t cross motorized throughways improve our quality of life, but also make possible and reasonable cohabitation with other species in the urban environment.

Restore daily newspapers! Publicly fund multiple news-papers as well as our robust neighborhood newspapers. Ensure ideological diversity is well represented in order to foster critical thinking and investigative journalism to closely monitor all public and private enterprises and to keep the population well-informed.

Recognize the Department of Memory! San Francisco has an abundance of community history groups, community newspapers, historical projects and historians, almost all of whom are working as volunteers or on extremely limited budgets. Recognize the importance of history to a robust public life—as important as any other public utility—and provide support for the many points of view being produced in our local history community. A new History or Humanities Commission could emulate the Arts Commission in providing annual grants to support this vital grassroots work.

Abolish all outdoor advertising. Turn the billboards and walls over to our many artists. Continue to supports artists and neighborhood arts groups through the Arts Commission.

These ideas, far from complete and open to expansion in so many directions, are all meant to expand San Francisco’s Common Wealth.

They are designed to provide dignified participation in meaningfully producing a good life for all to each and every person here, especially those currently left out and castigated.

Justice and fairness demands that everyone contributes, pulls their own weight, adds their own creativity and untapped talents to our common wealth.

Together we really could make a beautiful life.

Why shouldn’t we?

 

Summer Fog

June 30 2018 march of apx. 25,000 from Dolores Park to Civic Center, part of a wave of nationwide protests against the incredibly cruel family separation policy.

It’s summer in San Francisco, which comes with free air conditioning (whether you want it or not!). The rest of the Bay Area and most of California, and in fact a great deal of the world seems to be suffering sweltering, record-breaking heat. Here, hot air meets the cold ocean and we reliably get cooling fog, or as it’s known locally “Karl the Fog.”

Then there’s the other fog. The fog of lies and insults that passes for presidential communications these days. But that’s not worth thinking about, except to note that it is traumatizing for millions of people, and the daily repetition is producing a society numb or trembling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The unbearable cruelty of separating small children from their parents at the border has put us all in the position of being forced to watch torture carried out in our name. I just saw a piece on The Intercept where they found a 4-year-old and her 15-month-old sister still separated from their parents. It’s just so horrifying. While there have been some spirited protests and occupations at ICE offices, the story was mostly buried after the fake retreat by the administration. Overall the trumpian strategy works at throwing people on the defensive. Before they can get their bearings and actively resist, the attack shifts again, the assault comes from a new direction. Many people just grow more exhausted and demoralized—exactly as planned!

on Dolores Street, June 30

I don’t think there’s any real agenda driving this madness beyond personal enrichment and the insatiable lust for attention of one of history’s most childish and needy narcissists to ever gain executive power. But it doesn’t do us much good to spend time analyzing him, trying to find a crack in the fragile edifice of this immeasurably shallow, stupid, and casually cruel sociopath. Clearly the people in the administration have an aggressive agenda to attack anything associated with ecological sanity, seize resources and public assets, and destroy whomever stands in their way. I keep track of the ongoing descent into barbaric chaos mostly online and on late night comedy, but have abandoned my former attentiveness to the “news.” I know it’s very bad out there as the kleptocrats, militarists, racists, and assholes are riding high. I think they will get their comeuppance eventually, but I also know that such thoughts could be nothing more than a revenge fantasy based in an exaggerated sense of karma and ultimate justice. Time will tell I suppose.

Ice Caps Yes, ICE No! June 15, quickie demo at ICE offices on Sansome Street.

March to Civic Center, June 30

June 15 at ICE doors.

 

Instead of wringing my hands, or betting on a blue-female wave saving us in the midterms, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking and writing. I’ve got a new book on local history coming out next spring. We’ve been putting together our Fall schedule for Shaping San Francisco’s Talks and Tours. And I’m on the board of the San Francisco Community Land Trust (also my “landlord”) and helping to work through some essential organizational dynamics. And of course I’m out walking a lot, so if you’re on the streets of San Francisco and see me strolling by, say “hi!”

And I’ve popped out to a variety of demonstrations that have been erupting regularly on local streets. On May 31, I joined with a variety of comrades to blockade over a dozen tech shuttle buses at 24th and Valencia, using the suddenly ubiquitous e-scooters to build small barricades. The e-scooters themselves were widely reviled as they cluttered our streets (since removed) and are a sickening kind of get-rich-quick e-waste with a projected lifespan of only 3 months, depending on low-paid gig workers to collect, recharge, and reallocate them to the streets each morning. Yuck! On June 15 I made my way downtown on a quick call to join with a few dozen folks in front of the ICE offices here. There’d been a lockdown/blockade there a couple of months earlier, and an occupation closed its driveways for about a week over the July 4 week before the police rousted it. June 30 tens of thousands joined nationwide protests, marching from Dolores Park to the Civic Center, following the usual big marches during the Gay Pride weekend June 22-24.

May 31 blockade of 24th and Valencia, using the e-scooter junk to continue local protests against tech displacement and evictions.

Folks from San Jose and Berlin joined in…

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