Chapter 7: The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997 (Overview)
Late in the 1996-1997 season, Michael Jordan and the defending champion Chicago Bulls came into Philadelphia to play the lowly 76ers. The Bulls, at 54-8, were winning at a clip just behind the record-breaking 72-10 regular season won-loss mark they’d set the year before. The 76ers were struggling at 16-46. And yet, in the third quarter, with the Bulls ahead by two, the hard-to-please Philly crowd suddenly rose to its feet in cheers. Rookie guard Allen Iverson had just caught a short flip pass from teammate Clarence Weatherspoon beyond the three point line near the left sideline. As Iverson caught his pass, Weatherspoon set a screen on Iverson’s defender. The Bulls switched on the screen so that as Iverson dribbled to his right, toward the top of the key, he was picked up by Weatherspoon’s man: Michael Jordan, NBA All-Defensive First Team, former Defensive Player of the Year and, of course, greatest of all time.
Iverson dribbles back and forth a couple of times in place, before leaning to his left and allowing the ball to rise a bit higher toward his left hand. Jordan lunges to his right to cut off the anticipated drive, but Iverson quickly crosses the ball back over to his right hand. Jordan recovers his defensive position in front of Iverson as the Philly guard dribbles the ball back from his right hand to his left between his legs. Again the ball rises high toward Iverson’s left hand and, just as Jordan again lunges to his right, Iverson crosses the ball back over to his right in a flash, taking one hard dribble in that direction before stopping and rising—as Jordan regains his balance and attempts to catch up—for a jump shot. Jordan leaps to block the shot, but the ball has already left Iverson’s hand and is on its way toward the basket, where it settles cleanly through for two points and a tie game.
This play symbolizes a struggle over the direction of the league and the face of the sport. For even as Jordan appeared to have permanently resolved the challenges presented by the league’s blackness, a new generation of African American players—none better known or more popular than Iverson—appeared, unapologetically displaying the cultural markers of their upbringing (tattoos, corn rows, baggy shorts, hip hop) in the urban ruins of the Reagan revolution, while building upon and raising to new levels technical and tactical innovations first developed in urban playgrounds in the 1950s and 1960s. In the words of one historian, “For [NBA executives] the challenge of managing the infusion of hip-hop . . . was akin to playing with fire: handle it right and it would power the NBA into the new millennium: manage it wrong and it would burn down the house that Stern, Magic, Bird, and Jordan had built.”[i]
The NBA sought to capitalize on the new markets this “hip hop invasion” helped it penetrate, while also simultaneously trafficking in the social and cultural stereotypes arising of blackness in its attempt to regulate the presentation of these players to the league’s traditional white male consumers. The moment that Iverson crossed Jordan with a tactic first developed on the playground signifies a contest between two contrasting marketing visions and futures for the league, two different experiences of being black in the NBA and in America, and two different ways of responding to experiences of blackness. The moment also helps us apprehend and critically reflect upon blackness in the NBA as a myth that expresses and contains anxieties relating to race and change in the sport, suppresses its own social and historical origins, and may be countered by careful attention to the on-court styles it tends to oversimplify and disparage as aberrations contrary to the spirit of basketball.